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New Orleans ‘Pelicans’? This team name is for the birds

A pelican

A pelican

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Updated: March 1, 2013 7:16AM

Pelicans? The New Orleans Pelicans?

How many of you heard that the basketball team in the Big Easy will be changing its name from Hornets to Pelicans?

How many thought, “Cool new name”?

Just raise your hand. Anybody?

I didn’t think so. Me neither.

Yes, I don’t write about sports much, because I find sports uninteresting, as a rule — the same thing happening over and over again. But I’ve made an exception for basketball, since my 15-year-old watches the games, and I join him. The Bulls have rewarded us this season with exciting games and a cast of dynamic players — hard-charging Joakim Noah, relentless Nate Robinson, enigmatic Jimmy Butler, and the rest. They are, in fact, quite bull-like, especially Carlos Boozer.

But “Pelicans?” That’s such a wrong note, such a squawk of poor judgment, I had to join in early on the chorus of derision the new name is sure to receive. Yes, Louisiana is “The Pelican State.” So what? Illinois is “The Prairie State” and if Jerry Reinsdorf, in a fit of pique, changed the name of the Bulls to, oh, the Chicago Sod Busters, or the Chicago Grassland, to honor our prairie heritage, it would also be greeted as a blunder.

Have you ever seen a pelican? Loud, dirty, ungainly birds with big webbed feet and joggling, goiter-like pouches under their offal-dripping beaks. I’m surprised Ald. James Cappleman (46th) doesn’t prod some Indiana farmer to go around killing them (personal note to the alderman: as I’ve said, this pigeon mess is going to stick to you, rendering you a permanent laughingstock. Repent, repent and change your ways before you end up the Ancient Mariner of the City Council, shoulders thick with guano, a murdered pigeon moldering around your neck).

Pelicans aren’t fast and they aren’t attractive. But don’t trust me. Let’s consult our “Sibley Guide to Birds” — I assume a New Orleans team would embrace the coastal Brown Pelican, as opposed to the more inland American White. Brown pelicans are “a very large and ponderous bird” according to Sibley. They were endangered, almost wiped out in the 1970s due to DDT.

Not the bird I would choose to revitalize a franchise or represent athletic excellence. “To get their bulky bodies airborne, pelicans need lengthy, running starts,” notes the “Reference Atlas to the Birds of North America.”

Of course, bulls are not known for their soaring leaps either, so perhaps I’m being misled by the newness of the name. But the initial public reaction seems to echo mine.

“It does lack some credibility,” sportswriter Dan Loumena wrote on a Los Angeles Times blog. “Pelicans are not your typical bird, and they also aren’t your typical bird of prey, which usually flashes from the sky to pounce upon its victims. Eagles, hawks, falcons and osprey (seahawks) are almost regal. Not to say pelicans can’t be majestic, flying over water and scooping up meals . .. But pelicans don’t seem like they should be a pro franchise’s mascot or nickname. A college team? Maybe. Something like the Mad Pelicans? Angry Birds could work, but not the New Orleans Pelicans.”

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that an unfortunate name will hold a team back. Look at the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team. You couldn’t find a less appropriate avian mascot for hockey than penguins — stout, docile, waddling, flightless birds. Didn’t keep them from winning the Stanley Cup three times. (Even the Anaheim Ducks won the Stanley Cup, so a dumb name obviously is no barrier to success — just ask Sylvester Stallone).

It must boil down to familiarity. I grew up in Cleveland, so “Browns” sounds like a fine name for a football team, even though, upon reflection, I couldn’t tell you what “Browns” might be or why they became the team’s name; I’d guess it came from “Brownies,” a sort of 19th century Scottish elf. (And I’d be wrong; the team’s name has something to do with its first coach being Paul Brown).

My concern is not for victories, or the players, who can seem barely aware of what team they’re on, but for marketing. I have a hard time imagining fans fighting to get their new Pelicans gear, but maybe they will. I once made a detour off I-80 into Toledo because the buddy I was driving with wanted to track down merchandise for the Toledo Mud Hens, a minor league baseball club.

The “Mud Hens” name, by the way, is over 100 years old. I would have guessed “mud hen” was some kind of 19th century Ohio farm slang for a baseball player — dirty, hence the “mud,” plus a stern agrarian dismissal of the manliness of games, hence the “hen.” But they’re real birds, mud hen is the common name for the American coot.

“Noisy and feisty” according to “Kaufman’s Birds of North America,” the coot “may become tame on park ponds, golf courses.” Yes, American coots, especially of the Old Coot genus, do love their golf courses. And they tend to digress. But that’s another column.

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