Russians sent ‘carnivorous’ pelicans to London during the Cold War

For 360 years, there have been pelicans in St James’s Park.

When they were first presented to Charles II by the Czar of Russia in the 1660s, Londoners crowded into the park to catch a glimpse of these strange and exotic creatures.

Sadly, by the 1970s, the disease had reduced the park’s pelican population to just one – her name was Daphne, and she was nicknamed ‘the Lady of the Lake’.

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Though things were tense with Russia as the UK and USA were in the midst of the Cold War, but the UK government nevertheless approached them and asked if they could perhaps furnish them with a few more pelicans.

The Russians, rather graciously, agreed.

But when the pelicans arrived, stories began circulating of them devouring other birds in the park.

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Songbirds and woodpigeons were, the papers reported, disappearing into their great bulging gullets.

The stories generally weren’t believed because everyone knows pelicans are not carnivores – was it just anti-Russian propaganda, perhaps? The pelicans are fed almost five and a half kilos of fish a day, plus a vitamin supplement – surely there would be no need for them to resort to eating pigeons?

5 pelican

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But while proof was, at first, hard to come by, the stories didn’t stop.

It wasn’t until 2006 that Press Association photographer Cathal McNaughton snapped a photo of an unlucky woodpigeon flapping its last from inside a pelican’s mouth.

He said it kept the bird in its beak for 20 minutes before swallowing it whole.

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Even though similar stories had been circulating for over 30 years, an RSPB spokesman said of the incident: “It is almost unheard of for a pelican to eat a bird. Their diet should be strictly fish.”

The photo made front pages, prompting more stories from readers.

Some described how they’d seen them fill their bills with water to drown their fresh catch – others claimed they’d even witnessed them munching on ducks.

More pictures emerged, of course – and a video taken in 2013 by a visitor is particularly hard to argue with.

Birds living in close contact with humans are more likely to stray from their natural diet, becoming opportunistic in their feeding.

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