Her Majesty’s Pelicans

Director´s view

Miroslav Bobek  |  27. 05. 2019

Sun, Moon and Star are three great white pelicans who will embark on a journey from Prague Zoo to London next Thursday. Their new home will become a small lake in St. James’s Park, which is overlooked by the windows of Buckingham Palace. Sun, Moon and Star will be a de facto gift of the City of Prague to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. However, this is not the first time pelicans have been given to the British royal family. The first four great white pelicans left Prague for St. James’s Park in 1995, then three more in 2013. Sun, Moon and Star will thus have serial numbers 8, 9, and 10.

Pelikáni bílí, kteří v zázemí čekají na cestu za královnou, zatím bílí nejsou - ale to se spraví. Foto Petr Hamerník, Zoo Praha Pelikáni bílí, kteří v zázemí čekají na cestu za královnou, zatím bílí nejsou - ale to se spraví. Foto Petr Hamerník, Zoo Praha

However, the presence of pelicans in the very heart of the British monarchy has an infinitely longer history. The first of the “local” pelicans were a gift to King Charles II from the Russian Ambassador in 1664! So this is a tradition that stretches back more than three and a half centuries. This also corresponds to their importance, which can be documented by a Cold War story, which is not officially confirmed, though nor is it denied.

As former British diplomat Alistair Kerr recalled, in the 1960s, the Soviet Union continued a tradition that had initially begun with Tsarist Russia: now and then it would send new pelicans to St. James’s Park by means of its embassy. Naturally, in the rivalry raging between the superpowers, the new US ambassador thought that the United States should also make a gift of some pelicans to London. Which is what it did. Unfortunately, the American pelicans did not fare well in St. James's Park, so the Americans, in the paranoia of the Cold War, suspected that the Soviet embassy had their fingers in it. Thus, the already frosty relations between the two embassies worsened.

At this point, we would expect James Bond or at least MI5 to get involved, but, in fact, the American National Audubon Society stepped up. It pointed out that the US pelicans sent to London were in fact brown pelicans, which inhabit the coast, and the conditions in St. James’s Park were therefore unsuitable for them. The brown pelicans were subsequently moved to London Zoo and “freshwater” pelicans were transported from the United States. Fortunately, that is where the matter came to an end, and, as with many other Cold War episodes, fell into oblivion.

As you can see, sending pelicans to a British monarch is no small matter. We wish Moon, Sun and Star a safe journey and a happy life in St. James’s Park!

Published in the Czech daily MF Dnes.