Former diplomat Alistair Kerr tells the strange tale of the pelicans that live in the centre of London – and how their mysterious ailments sparked an international incident.

Back in the 1960s, when London’s Royal Parks accepted some American pelicans for the lake in St James’s Park, they had no idea that they would come perilously close to becoming embroiled in a diplomatic incident.

Pelicans of different species have lived in the park since 1664, when the Russian Ambassador, knowing that Charles II appreciated exotic waterfowl, presented the monarch with two grey or Dalmatian pelicans (aka Pelecanus crispus). However, as the pelicans have never bred successfully, the park’s population has had to be replenished from time to time.

The Russian Embassy’s custom of occasionally presenting new pelicans continued during and after the Soviet era and other organisations – such as the City of Prague in 2013 – have also added to the birds’ numbers.

According to Foreign Office tradition, the presence of the American pelicans resulted from a Cold War rivalry between the American and Soviet Embassies. One day, a newly accredited US Ambassador called on the Foreign Secretary, whose office overlooks the lake. He noticed the pelicans and was informed about their history and origin.

Determined not to be upstaged by the Soviet Ambassador, his opposite number announced that he, too, would be presenting some pelicans – American ones – to grace the lake, an offer that the Royal Parks management accepted gratefully.

When the American pelicans duly arrived, they were, predictably, not friendly to their Russian counterparts. Indeed, rather mysteriously, they failed to flourish and seemed miserable. The US Embassy suspected the Soviet Embassy of harming the American pelicans – which the Russians denied – and relations between the embassies became glacial.

 

Pelicans in St. James’s Park in London.

Eventually, the National Audubon Society supplied the explanation: the American pelicans were the wrong sort. The US Ambassador, who was not an ornithologist, had presented brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis), a purely saltwater species, which weren’t happy on the freshwater lake. Subsequently, the brown pelicans were moved to a zoo, where they lived on a saltwater pool and seemed content.

The Ambassador didn’t give up easily, however, and ordered a batch of American white pelicans, which prefer freshwater and soon settled down harmoniously with their European cousins. The diplomatic feud was defused and amicable bilateral relations resumed.

‘We’re aware of this story, but it’s now impossible to confirm the detail,’ cautions a Royal Parks spokesman.

‘The alleged incidents took place in the 1960s. I can, however, confirm that St James’s Park has received pelicans from several different sources, including Russia and the USA.’

If they don’t know this history, tourists are sometimes surprised to see pelicans on the lake, especially as these exotic birds are not easily overlooked. Those that haven’t had their wings clipped are an impressive sight when they take to the air – only albatrosses have a greater wingspan.

Sociable creatures, the pelicans can often be seen swimming and preening together. They’re fed daily with fresh fish between 2:30pm and 3pm near Duck Island Cottage.

Roughly half are European white pelicans (Pelecanus onocrotalus), while the others are American white pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos). Both look similar, apart from in the mating season, when the Americans grow a yellow comb on their bills and the Europeans’ plumage becomes a delicate pale pink, hence their other name of rosy pelican.

St James’s Park is London’s oldest public open space, but it didn’t become an ornamental pleasure ground until the 17th century. Prior to that, cattle grazed there and duck decoys on natural pools entrapped wildfowl for the royal table. The Cockpit Steps are a reminder of the days when royal falcons and fighting cocks lived on the adjacent Birdcage Walk.

 

In the early 1600s, James I drained and landscaped the area, creating a flower garden and installing a small menagerie of camels, crocodiles, an elephant and exotic waterfowl. However, on January 30, 1649, the park witnessed an altogether darker event when Charles I walked across it from St James’s Palace to his execution in Whitehall.

During the Interregnum of 1649–60, Oliver Cromwell formally opened the park to the public, which Charles II maintained after the Restoration, often strolling there, chatting informally with his subjects and feeding the ducks. A fan of the formal gardens he’d seen during his exile in France, Charles ordered a redesign of St James’s Park in the French taste, to include an ornamental canal, which was later enlarged into a lake. Subsequent monarchs made further improvements.

As for the pelicans, they’ve become a time-hallowed London tradition, like the ravens in the Tower. May they always remain so!