If you've seen the pelicans of St James's Park in the flesh, you'll appreciate that they're sizeable beasts. You wouldn't want one running at you, flying into your kneecaps... or, say, crash-landing into the War Office while you're holding an important meeting with foreign Chiefs of Staff.
But the latter is exactly what happened one windy day in London, some time in the 1950s or early 1960s.
The 'royal' pelicans have been resident in the park since the 1660s, despite the fact they really aren't built for life in this environment. Their wingspan is so large that a) they're a danger to the park-dwelling public, and b) they're liable to get swept away in strong gusts of wind.
This problem had been dealt with for many years by vets at London Zoo, who used to pinion the wings. But then, members of the Royal Household raised concerns over how this looked. So the vets — at this time headed up by Oliver Graham-Jones — devised a new method which involved removing a strip of tendons from the wing.
All was fine and dandy until one particularly gusty day, when the buildings around the park created a mini whirlwind, uprooting trees, lifting rubbish bins into the air... as well as two of those pelicans. According to Graham-Jones:
Two pelicans took off in the wind and floated majestically upwards, circling the tops of the trees.
One crash-landed on Birdcage Walk and returned to the lake, apparently unharmed. The second, though, got caught up in a side draught and was blown over Horse Guards Parade and across Whitehall, crashing through a set of large windows in what was then the War Office building, and rudely interrupting a meeting of the foreign Chiefs of Staff.
Once the initial furore had calmed, the zoo's vets were summoned to deal with the wayward bird. It was undamaged by its unplanned flight, but the vets found the procedure they had used to prevent the bird from flying hadn't worked because the tendons had grown back.
Precise details of the event are hazy, and it's not known which politician of the hour would have been chairing such a board. It's not the first time the mere presence of the St James's Park pelicans has come close to causing a diplomatic incident.
Hat tip to the following book for putting us onto this story: Zoo Tails by Oliver Graham-Jones. We haven't been able to find any information elsewhere to corroborate this tale.
Graham-Jones was the first official vet in residence at London Zoo, working there from 1951-1966. The book contains many enchanting anecdotes of his work with the animals at a time when veterinary medicine was a lot more basic than it is today, including the story of when a leopard was taken to meet the prime minister at Downing Street.