A poor fisherman would go out to sea each day to catch what he could to support his family. A lazy pelican that lived nearby hated the effort of flying over the water, searching for fish, and diving to catch them. One day, it was flying over the poor fisherman’s boat, and saw his catch of fish for the day—a small pile—stacked up in his boat. Sensing an opportunity for an easy meal, the pelican dived down and stole a fish out of the pile. The fisherman shooed the pelican away. The pelican flew up into the air, waited until the fisherman was not looking, and then dived down again to steal another fish. Over and over again, the pelican stole more and more of the fish. The fisherman’s catch had been meager to begin with, and the pelican’s thefts depleted so much of it that the fisherman did not have enough to both feed his family and sell fish at the market for money to buy other necessities.
The fisherman kept a lifelike wood carving of a fish in his boat as a sort of good luck charm. He knew that the wooden fish did not really bring luck—that his success really depended mostly on his own hard work—but his father and grandfather had carried the wooden fish with them every day when out to sea, and so he brought it with him to continue the tradition (especially because his aged father lived at the fisherman’s house with his family, and seeing his son carry on the tradition brought him comfort). Seeking solace, the fisherman picked up his wooden fish and despaired the meager remnants of his catch following the pelican’s thefts. The fisherman then set down the wooden fish and started to row to shore.
The pelican, still circling overhead, saw the wooden fish. The fish looked real to the pelican and it was larger than the rest. Greedily, he swooped down, plucked it up, and swallowed it. As he tried to fly back up into the air, the fish caught in his throat, and the pelican fell back down to the water’s surface, struggling to get the fish out. He expended much effort trying—far more than he would have spent just working to find and catch his own fish. He had swallowed the wooden fish so enthusiastically, though, that it was firmly lodged in his throat. No matter what he did, he could not get it out. The pelican flailed around on the surface of the ocean, and soon choked to death. The fisherman used his net to catch the pelican, and rowed in to shore—with his wooden fish (retrieved from the pelican’s throat), a small pile of fish to sell, and a pelican for his family to eat for dinner.
When he entered his home with the dead pelican, the man’s father smiled knowingly and asked one question, “the wooden fish?” The fisherman nodded.
The pelican died because it failed to learn the simple lesson that each must work for his own sustenance, rather than living off the labors of others. The fisherman and his family did not go hungry that night because the fisherman had learned to value tradition, even though he could not initially recognize its purpose.