The translators of the Greek Septuagint and Latin Vulgate identified the Hebrew word qa·ʼathʹ with the “pelican.” It is listed among the birds designated as ‘unclean’ in the Mosaic Law.—Le 11:13, 18; De 14:11, 12, 17.
The pelican is one of the largest of the flying birds, attaining a length of over 1.5 m (5 ft), with a majestic wingspread of 2.5 m (8 ft) or more. The yellowish beak is long and hooked, and the large elastic pouch beneath is scarcely noticeable when empty. Ponderous on land, the pelicans are strong, graceful fliers and have been known to have their nesting places as much as 100 km (60 mi) from the places of their fishing. They are superb fishers, and their webbed feet enable them to maneuver swiftly in the water.
When the pelican is gorged with food, it often flies away to a lonely place, where it takes a melancholy posture, with its head sunk on its shoulders, so motionless that it might be mistaken from a distance for a white stone. The bird assumes this attitude for hours at a time, thus befitting the melancholy inactivity to which the psalmist refers when he illustrates the poignancy of his grief by writing: “I do resemble the pelican of the wilderness.” (Ps 102:6) Here “wilderness” does not necessarily connote a desert, but simply an area away from human habitations, perhaps a swamp. During certain seasons, swamps in the northern Jordan Valley are still the home of pelicans. Three varieties of pelicans are found in Israel. The most common is the eastern white pelican (Pelecanus onocrotalus); the Dalmatian pelican (Pelecanus crispus) and the pink-backed pelican (Pelecanus rufescens) are seen less often.
The pelican shows a distinct preference for uncultivated places, where it will not be disturbed by man. There it nests and hatches its young and retires after fishing. Because of this fondness for lonely, desolate places, this bird is used in the Bible as a symbol of utter desolation. To symbolize Edom’s coming desolation, Isaiah foretold that the pelican would take possession of that land. (Isa 34:11) Zephaniah prophesied that pelicans would dwell among the pillar capitals of Nineveh, indicating total ruin and absence of humankind.—Zep 2:13, 14.