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pelican facts

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With its distinctive stocky stature and distinctive beak, the pelican has been a pop culture icon since the Middle Ages, appearing in art and heraldry.

These waterfowl are known for their high fish consumption, often eating up to 4 pounds of fish per day. One of the lesser known facts about pelican birds is the high altitudes they can fly to.

An Incredible Bird: Pelican Facts!

  • The beak pouch can hold up to three gallons of water, more than three times the capacity of this animal's stomach.
  • The brown pelican is the only species that dives to fish, usually from a height of 60 or 70 feet.
  • Although they are heavy birds, pelicans can fly with ease thanks to air cells in their bones, which allow them to reach altitudes of 10,000 feet as they glide through warm air currents.
  • Pelican birds typically hunt cooperatively, flapping their wings against the water's surface to transfer fish into shallow water and scooping them up with their beaks.
  • The pelican bird played a popular role in medieval and Renaissance Christian art, largely because of the myth that the animals pierced their own breasts to feed their chicks.

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Bird scientific name

Pelicans belong to the family Pelicanidae or order Pelicans. The two most famous plumages are white, the North American White Pelican ( Pelecanus erythrorhynchos ) and the European White Pelican ( P. onocrotalus ). Other species and their scientific names include brown pelican ( P. occidentalis ), Peruvian pelican ( P. thagus ), great white pelican ( Pelecanus onocrotalus ), Australian pelican ( Pelecanus conspicillatus ), pink-backed pelican ( P. conspicillatus) and Dalmatian Pelican (P. crispus ). The scientific name of pelicans is further divided into two subgroup types, including New World pelicans and Old World pelicans.


There are 8 main species of pelicans:

  • American White Pelican ( Pelecanus erythrorhynchos ): Known for its brilliant white plumage, this bird has a plump body and is the longest bird in North America. It's also known for its rather impressive wingspan, which can reach up to 10 feet, longer than any other North American bird except the California condor.
  • Australian Pelican ( Pelecanus conspicillatus ): Distinguishing features of this bird include a large pink beak (the largest of any species on Earth), pristine white plumage, and dark wings. Despite its name, it can also be found in Fiji, Indonesia and New Zealand.
  • Brown Pelican ( Pelecanus occidentalis ): The smallest of the pelicans, this bird enjoys some status as the state bird of Louisiana and Barbados. Its wingspan can reach more than 7 feet, and its plumage is often a stark contrast to the gleaming white that its cousins possess.
  • Dalmatian Pelican ( Pelecanus crispus )
  • Great White Pelican ( Pelecanus onocrotalus )
  • Peruvian Pelican ( Pelecanus thagus )
  • Pink-backed Pelican ( Pelecanus rufescens )
  • Spot-billed Pelican ( Pelecanus philippensis )


The evolutionary history of pelicans seems shrouded in mystery. However, experts generally agree that their ancestors diverged from the ancestors of gulls and terns to form a separate branch during the Cretaceous period 70 million years ago.

Fourteen million years later, during the Eocene epoch, the ancestors of hamerkops, herons, ibis, pelicans and spoonbills diverged again. By the early Miocene, 33 million years after the second divergence, this clade had divided into six major species extant.

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White Pelican in flight, fishing, Namibia, Africa
A pelican's beak can hold three times the capacity of its stomach


These birds are easily recognizable by their large bodies sitting on short legs and long wingspans, their webbed flippers, long necks and most notably their distinctive beaks and accompanying large pouches. Their tails are short and square, while their wings are long and broad, suitable for gliding in air currents. Their plumage is mostly light-coloured, with the exception of the brown pelican and the Peruvian pelican, which have brightly colored plumage.

During the breeding season, all pelicans become brightly colored around their beaks, pouches, and facial skin. Most also grow a knob on the upper part of their beaks, which is shed each year at the end of the breeding season. The largest species is the spotted pelican, weighing 22 to 26 pounds, while the smallest is the brown pelican, which weighs only 8 to 10 pounds.


These birds have the largest beaks of any bird species. In some species, the beak can be as long as 18 inches. The large pouch under the beak, called the gular, is the pelican's most distinctive feature. These birds primarily use their unique anatomy to scoop up fish and then expel the caught water, but some birds also use their beak pouch as a way of swinging it back and forth to cool themselves on warm days. The upper part of the beak also has a downward hook, which these birds also use to catch fish. The male Australian pelican has the longest beak at 1.6 feet.


American White Pelican
Pelicans are naturally gregarious, but they're also territorial

©Image by Dr. Alan Lipkin/Shutterstock.com

These birds are very social birds, living in colonies of hundreds of individuals. Groups of these birds go by many different names, including brief, pod, pouch, squadron, and scoop. They also enjoy the company of other birds, including cormorants or flamingos. Depending on the species, they make their nests in trees, in bushes, or on the ground. When they're not eating, they're spending time sleeping, sunbathing, or grooming themselves. At dusk, the bird rests its head on its shoulders, eyes closed, feathers ruffled from the cold.

You'll often see migrating flocks of pelicans, either in a V-shape or in a single file. Both sexes are grouped with their children throughout the year. Generally, they are vocal only in breeding colonies, expressing excitement with grunts. Adults communicate by means of visual displays using their wings and beak. In an even more interesting fact, chicks often make loud noises before leaving the nest. They express their displeasure by hissing open bills. Some birds also defend their territory by flapping their beaks or opening their mouths when they raise their heads, ducking and shaking their heads.


These birds live on all continents except Antarctica and generally live in warm climates near coastal or inland waters such as lakes and rivers, although their range can extend to temperate climate types with well-defined seasons. They like to congregate on the island as much as possible.


Dalmatian Pelican eating fish in a snowy environment, Pelecanus crispus, Lake Kerkini, Greece
Pelicans prefer seafood and meat

© Jakl Zdenek/Shutterstock.com

These birds are carnivorous and feed mainly on fish. Their favorites are carp, silverfish, mullet, and minnow, although preferred fish vary by species. They also eat amphibians, crustaceans, insects, other birds, and even small mammals. They feed in groups or alone, but Dalmatian and pink-backed pelicans prefer to feed alone. Brown and Peruvian pelicans spot their prey from a height and then dive to retrieve it.

Predators and Threats

Coyote in the sun
Coyotes are a threat to these birds known for their distinctive beaks

©Mircea Costina/Shutterstock.com

Due to their large size, these birds have few natural predators. Wild dogs and coyotes count among their natural predators, along with cats. However, the greatest threat to their survival comes from humans. Brown pelicans were all but wiped out when the 20th-century use of the insecticide DDT thinned their eggshells. As more people migrated to coastal areas, development encroached on pelican nesting areas. After DDT was banned in 1972, brown pelican populations rebounded. They are no longer considered endangered, but are listed as Vulnerable.

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Native to parts of eastern Europe and parts of western Asia along the Mediterranean Sea, the Dalmatian pelican also faces human threats as its wetland habitat is shrinking. Recent conservation efforts have helped stabilize their numbers.

Many different species in densely populated areas have become dependent on people feeding them, prompting them to stop hunting. Pelicans that beg for food from humans are not getting the necessary nutrients and are at risk of dying from disease. Others tend to hunt in areas where commercial fishermen cast their nets and set their hooks. Birds got caught up in it, and some fishermen only unwound them without removing the nets or hooks, endangering the lives of the birds. Oil spills, water contamination and chemical dumps also threaten the Pelicans.

Reproduction, Babies and Longevity

Pair of pelican chicks in nest
Pelican chicks are fed by both parents before they learn to fend for themselves

© Julie Rubacha/Shutterstock.com

These birds are monogamous within a single season. Males use various strategies to attract females when mating. Some pelican species mate only seasonally, while others can mate year-round. Males of some species change the color of their pouch and neck feathers during courtship to attract females. Both sexes participate in nest building, which usually consists of feathers, leaves, and twigs. Ground-nesting species have a complex courtship ritual consisting of several males chasing a single female. Tree-nesting species have simpler forms of courtship, with males advertising for females.

Mating occurs in the nest, 3 to 10 days before spawning. Both males and females are responsible for nest building using feathers, leaves and twigs. Females can lay anywhere from 1 to 6 eggs, depending on the species, which take 30 to 36 days to hatch.

Both parents stand on top of the eggs to incubate them. The eggs hatch in the order they are laid, with the first chick usually being the largest. Newly hatched chicks are nude and pink, eventually turning black or black within 14 days and subsequently covered with white or gray undercoat. Immature pelicans have darker plumage than their parents. Young pelicans feed by protruding their beaks into their parents' gullets to retrieve regurgitated fish.

When chicks are about 25 days old, they begin to congregate in the pods of other young birds. Parents recognize and only feed their offspring. After two months, they began to travel further afield, occasionally swimming and sometimes group feeding. By 12 weeks they leave the nest and sometimes stay with their parents but are rarely fed by them. Pelican birds become sexually mature at three to four years old.

Pelicans live 10 to 30 years in the wild; the oldest recorded wild animal in the genus lived to be 43 years old.


The brown pelican population is estimated to be around 300,000 worldwide and 350,000 for the Peruvian pelican. The number of pelicans varies from 10,000 to 13,900. There are approximately 100,000 white pelicans living in North America and as many as 10,000 breeding pairs in Europe. The Australian Pelican is widespread, with an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 birds scattered across the continent.

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Birds at the Zoo: Where to Find Pelicans

In zoos, pelicans share habitat with cormorants, ducks and other waterfowl. They inhabit some of the most popular exhibits at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, the only zoo in North America with great white, spotted and pink-backed pelicans.

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Pelican FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

Are pelicans herbivores, carnivores, or omnivores?

Pelicans are omnivores, which means they eat both plants and other animals.

To which kingdom do pelicans belong?

Pelicans belong to the animal kingdom.

Which category do pelicans belong to?

Pelicans belong to the class of birds.

What phylum do pelicans belong to?

Pelicans belong to the phylum Chordate.

What family do pelicans belong to?

Pelicans belong to the family Pelicanidae.

What team are the Pelicans on?

Pelicans belong to the order Pelicans.

What type of cover do pelicans have?

Pelicans are covered with feathers.

What genus do pelicans belong to?

Pelicans belong to the genus Pelican.

What type of habitat do pelicans live in?

Pelicans live on dry islands and coastal waters.

What is the main prey of pelicans?

Pelicans prey on fish, crabs and turtles.

Who are the natural enemies of pelicans?

Predators of pelicans include humans, cats, and coyotes.

What are the distinctive features of a pelican?

Pelicans have a pouch under their beaks and have keen eyesight.

How many eggs do pelicans lay?

Pelicans usually lay 6 eggs.

What interesting facts about pelicans?

Pelicans have a wingspan of up to 3 meters!

What do pelicans eat?

Their diet consists primarily of fish, but they also eat turtles, tadpoles, and crustaceans, and may consume as much as four pounds of fish per day.

Where do pelicans live?

They live all over the world except Antarctica, where they are most abundant in subtropical and tropical climates, especially in the Gulf of Mexico, where they are an iconic symbol of the region.

What does a pelican look like?

Pelicans are large birds with long necks, large bodies, short legs, webbed flippers, and a distinctive fishing bag.

How much does a pelican weigh?

Pelicans are typically one of the largest birds in the world, weighing between 8 pounds and 30 pounds.

Are pelicans friendly?

Each bird has a distinct personality. They are generally friendly birds, but experts advise against touching them as they are large and can be very aggressive when frightened.

Do pelicans migrate?

Most species are migratory, but some birds, especially those that live in Florida, winter in their summer roosts.

How many eggs does a pelican lay?

Most species lay two to three eggs, although some can lay as many as six.

How fast do pelicans fly?

Pelicans can fly at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour, but they often prefer to glide through the air in search of food.

What is the wingspan of a pelican?

Some pelican species have wingspans ranging from 6.6 feet to over 11 feet.

When do pelicans leave their nests?

Chicks leave the nest 10 to 12 weeks after hatching.

What is the lifespan of a pelican?

Pelicans can live 16 to 23 years.

How do pelicans give birth?

Pelicans lay eggs.

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  1. Wikipedia, available here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pelican
  2. All about birds, available here: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/American_White_Pelican/id
  3. Audubon, available here: https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/american-white-pelican
  4. Classic Collection of Birds of North America, available here: https://www.birds-of-north-america.net/pelicans.html