With its bill and claws, the mother bird caresses her offspring with such devotion that she kills them. After three days the father arrives and, despairing over the deaths of this young, rips at his own breast with his bill. The blood that spills from his wounds revives the dead birds. This is the account given in medieval bestiaries, though St Jerome in a commentary on the 102nd Psalm (‘I am like a pelican of the wilderness: I am like an owl of the desert’) attributes the death of the nestlings to the serpent. That the Pelican opens its breast and feeds its young with its own blood is the common version of the fable.
Blood that gives life to the dead suggests the Eucharist and the cross, and so a famous line of the Paradiso (XXV, 113) calls Jesus Christ nostro Pellicano - mankind’s Pelican.