The Physiologus says of the pelican that it of all birds loves its young the most, but when the chicks grow and begin to strike their parents in the face, the parents grow angry and strike back, killing their young. After three days the mother feels great remorse, and tearing open her own breast she bathes the dead chicks in her blood and restores them to life. The Epiphanius version is the same, except that the mother pelican is said to kill her young by her excessive kisses. The interpretation is that we have struck our "parent" (God) with our sin, which has doomed us, but Christ's blood can revive us.

The young pelicans in the van der Borcht copperplate engraving below appear to be about to drink the blood of their mother; some versions of story say that she feeds them her blood. The pose of the mother bird is known as "the pelican in her piety."

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The woodcut below (from the Rome, 1577 edition) has the pelican and chicks in the same pose.


Properties of the Pelican