The pelican is an important presence at Louisiana-- Louisiana the school, Louisiana the state. What is the story there?

In 1926, to gain admittance to the Association of Southern Colleges, then-Southwestern Louisiana Institute was required to design a school shield. It was designed by Ellsworth Woodward of Newcomb College:

Quarterly, first and fourth, secure three fleur de lys argents, for France: second and third, gules a castle with three turrets machicolated and open to the field, for Spain: in chief, argent a pelican in her piety, for Louisiana.

The original clipping from the USL scrapbook stated that, "The pelican on the shield is depicting a female pelican tearing its breast to revive her dead young with her own life blood."

Why the pelican? How did the brown pelican become the State Bird of Louisiana, how did the pelican become the focal point of the world's largest Louisiana flag, and how did it arrive at the chief of the Seal of The University of Louisiana? The story begins over a thousand years ago in Europe and the Middle East.

In medieval alchemy, the image of the pelican represented the philosopher's stone. This mythological substance, sought after by the greatest minds of the Middle Ages, was an agent for transmutation and purification: it could turn lead into gold. It also could make mortals immortal, and thereby represented the Resurrection. From these, the pelican came to represent the human struggle for wisdom, and perfection. The pelican is also the antithesis of the raven, which signifies death.

According to historical traditions, the female pelican rips her breast to feed her starving young with her blood, an allusion to Christ and the Church. Epiphanius, Bishop of Constantia, alternatively wrote in his Physiologus (1588) that in caring for her young, the female pelican accidentally kills them. After three days, the male flies down, rips his breast and his blood revives them.

Pelican Epiphanius PhysiologusFor all of these reasons, the pelican was a popular Renaissance motif representing the Eucharist, and pelicans are portrayed in cathedrals across western Europe. Bishop Fox adopted the pelican in 1516 for his newly-founded College of Corpus Christi, Oxford.

Because early Catholic explorers found indigenous brown pelicans along the Gulf coast, and because of the pelican’s special place in Christianity, the pelican was chosen to represent the Catholic Church in Louisiana. From these traditions, the pelican became the official emblem of the State of Louisiana, and the brown pelican, the state bird. The pelican was adopted for the State Seal in 1902, and the State Flag featuring a pelican was adopted in 1912.

"Louisiana has several nicknames of which 'The Pelican State' seems to be most popular... Louisianians themselves also have nicknames, being called "Pelicans,"... (Louisiana: The Pelican State)

Bronze Louisiana PelicanThe emblem of the pelican ripping her breast to feed her young is an appropriate representative for UL, as it portrays one of our oldest and most profound metaphors of alma mater, “nourishing mother.”

So for all of these reasons, it is appropriate that the brown pelican serves as the mascot of the State of Lousiana, the image of the State Flag, as well the mascot on the University of Louisiana Seal.

The white pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos and P. onocrotalus) are fresh-water birds of lakes and streams, occupying Europe, Asia, Africa, and the American Northwest. However the brown pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, is a salt-water bird of the American Southeast and tropical/sub-tropical Americas. The two species are as distinct as the tiger (Panthera tigris) and the lion (Panthera leo).

Michigan: The Wolverine State • Iowa: The Hawkeye State • Texas: The Longhorn State • Oklahoma: The Sooner State • Tennessee: The Volunteer State • North Carolina: The Tarheel State • Nebraska: The Cornhusker State • Ohio: The Buckeye State • Kansas: The Jayhawk State • Indiana: The Hoosier State • West Virginia: The Mountain State • Arkansas: The Razorback State

Louisiana: The Pelican State