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A love letter to pelicans, St. Pete’s unofficial bird

An old limerick ignites a quest for recognition for the big-billed friends of the city.
Pelicans sit on a pier along Boca Ciega Bay in Pass-a-Grille. [MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Nov. 14
Updated Nov. 14

When we arrived in St. Petersburg in 1977 — how can I say this delicately? — the city mostly sucked. But it did have a few things going for it, among them: the weather (for half a year), the sea and sand, the St. Petersburg Times, Haslam’s Book Store, spring training baseball and pelicans.

I love pelicans. The pelican already appears as the emblem of the city. You can find the pelican image on brochures, T-shirts, storm drain covers, the city flag and, as I write this, on the hat I am wearing. Not long ago, I read that the city had paid about $150,000 to erect a statue at the top of the approach to the new pier. It is a 13-foot-high pelican. But not just an ordinary pelican. It’s red. And it’s in the style of origami with a little flock of baby birds perched on its head. The work of California artist Nathan Mabry, it looks fabulous on paper.

Nathan Mabry's red origami pelican sculpture will greet visitors at the entrance to the pier in St. Petersburg. It's titled "Myth (Red Pelican)." [City of St. Petersburg]

That gave me an idea. “Let’s get St. Pete to adopt the poem,” I said to my wife, Karen, at the Banyan Cafe.

“What poem?”

A stranger at the next table who happened to be a former English teacher from Ohio knew exactly what I was talking about. Without an invitation, she recited this couplet: “A wonderful bird is the pelican. His bill will hold more than his belican.”

This, I would argue, is one of the most well-known poetic couplets of the 20th century. (Go ahead, try to recite another.) It has been misattributed to the prolific humorist Ogden Nash, who did write many clever animal poems, but not this one. An obituary in the New York Times reveals the author to be a Tennessee newspaper editor, columnist, historian and humorist named Dixon Lanier Merritt. In 1913, one of his readers — on vacation in Florida — sent him a postcard with an image of a pelican on the front. Inspired, he wrote not just a couplet but a limerick:

A wonderful bird is the pelican

His bill can hold more than his belican

He can take in his beak

Food enough for a week

But I’m damned if I see how the helican

I knew right then that this poem, or at least the couplet, should somehow be integrated into the art of the new pier, which is due to open in the next six months. No visitor to St. Petersburg should pass by without seeing it. No child should escape its playful humor. It should be as delicious and ubiquitous as the grouper sandwich. Hey, maybe those first two lines could be adopted by the city as its official poetic couplet!

I rushed down to the SWAG on Central collectibles store and sure enough they had a collection of old postcards for sale. I bought four with pelican images on the front. Three of the four, including one from 1920, had already incorporated some version of Dixon Merritt’s poem. So as not to offend the sanctimonious, they changed the language from “I’m damned” to “I’m blest.”

An antique postcard featuring pelicans and a limerick by Dixon Lanier Merritt. [Courtesy of Roy Peter Clark]

I hopped in my car to pick up my daughter at the airport, filled with pelican enthusiasm. I am not making this up. As I crossed the bridge, I noticed a pelican, then another, then another soaring across the bay within a few feet of my car. They were adopting me. I was part of their flock — their squadron. It was a sign from God. Then it hit me. Or should I say it hit my windshield, what must have been a gallon of pelican poop, like a Gatorade bath after a walk-off home run. I laughed so hard I almost drove off the bridge. The bird, it turns out, is the word.

Back at the office, I began research on Dixon Merritt and discovered a remarkable character and a brilliant writer: poet, humorist, columnist, historian and, eventually, editor of the Tennessean newspaper. For our purposes, it is notable that he was a disciple of Audubon and a founder of the Tennessee Ornithological Society. Until his death in 1972 at 90, he wrote exquisite essays on bird life and bird love for the society’s newsletter The Migrant. (Birds migrate!) In one obituary, Merritt is quoted as expressing regret that, in spite of his many honors and accomplishments, his biggest splash remained the pelican poem. It’s a limerick, he complained, and not a very good one.

So that’s my secret plan, to elevate the pelican even higher in the city’s profile: from sculpture, to poetry, to murals — but also to conservation and marine science. The pelican is a funny bird, but also a noble one. Go back 2,000 years and you will find the pelican in the early iconography of the Christian church. It was said that a pelican that did not have food to feed its young would give of its own body and blood, hence an association with the sacrifice and Eucharist of Jesus.

That’s a lot of great work for a bird that kind of looks like a pterodactyl. So in its honor, please imagine taking your family next year to enjoy all the delights of St. Pete’s new pier. Look forward, somewhere in that splendid territory, to revisit the greatest couplet of the 20th and now 21st century: “A wonderful bird is the pelican. His bill will hold more than his belican.”

An antique postcard featuring a pelican and a limerick by Dixon Lanier Merritt. [Courtesy of Roy Peter Clark]

* * *

Fans of The Catcher in the Rye will recall that among his other obsessions, Holden Caulfield was paralyzed by the question of what happened to ducks in the winter when the Central Park ponds froze over. I guess “migration” was not in Holden’s prep school natural science curriculum.

In the same spirit, Times editor Stephanie Hayes refused to publish this story until I could answer the question “Whatever happened to the pelicans at the old pier?”

Pelican poop stained the old St. Pete piers for a century. In the last version, the Inverted Pyramid, many visitors would stop at a bait shack near the entrance, buy some pelican grub and toss it to the fat and happy birds. No need to hold that food for a week in your satchel beak, Pelican Pete, not when kids and grandpas are tossing fish at you like a game of cornhole. Early publicity photos of older piers often show a child — usually a little girl in a happy dress — surrounded by pelicans, a fish in her hand.

RELATED: Why it’s bad to feed pelicans

If you love pelicans, you should not feed them. Why? 1. It makes them lazy and less interested in flying, diving and fishing for themselves. 2. Their proximity to feeders and anglers often has them diving at baitfish, resulting in them getting hooked. They get tangled in fishing line, often dragging it back to their nests and entangling other birds. If you think unhooking a fish is tough at times, try unhooking a pelican. So if I were counseling those pelicans that found themselves foodless after the destruction of the old pier, I would tell them a bad news/good news story.

Yes, the bad news is that you will no longer be fed by well-meaning tourists who think you are just the cutest thing they have ever seen. The good news is that you will lead healthier and safer lives, soaring over the sea in squadrons, circling the water below you, dropping from the sky like dive bombers, surfacing with — maybe not enough food for a week — but at least a bit of breakfast.

So what happened to those pelicans? They either learned how to feed themselves, experts say, or they died.

A visitor feeds the pelicans at the Pier in St. Petersburg in 2013. [SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times]

* * *

Does St. Petersburg have an official bird?

In 1927 the State of Florida chose the feisty mockingbird as its state bird. Good choice. Mockingbirds sing great and can be seen kicking the asses of much larger predatory crows. One mockingbird was brave enough to swoop down and peck my cat Voodoo on the head. Which invites the question: If the state can have its own bird, can a city?

After all, the state has a poet laureate (Peter Meinke, from St. Pete), and so does our city (Helen Wallace). When I began this project, I assumed the pelican was the city’s official bird, hence its presence on the city emblem.

Wayne Atherholt, St. Pete’s cultural czar, wasn’t so sure. As you read this, he has commissioned a search through the city’s archives to see where the pelican stands. Let’s assume for a moment that the search comes up empty. Here then is an imagined proclamation, which might be proclaimed whenever the new pelican sculpture is unveiled at the pier:

Whereas the brown pelican has been long associated with the City of St. Petersburg … Whereas the image of the pelican is ubiquitous in the city … Whereas the new pier will incorporate both the art and biology of the pelican … Whereas the pelican needs protection from certain environmental and human dangers … Whereas the pelican poem has been used for more than a century to honor the great bird … The City of St. Petersburg officially proclaims to all citizens, to all visitors, young and old, of this great city that the pelican is now and forever our city bird. We also proclaim, in the words of the poet, that “A wonderful bird is the pelican. His bill can hold more than his belican.” May the pelican poem inspire even more creativity, in poetry and the visual arts, and encourage the heightened protection of this amazing creature. And DON’T FEED THEM, PEOPLE!

Since 1977, Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at the Poynter Institute, which owns the Times. He is the author of several books, including “Murder Your Darlings,” out this January. He can be reached at rclark@poynter.org. And, yes, he loves pelicans.

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