Pelicans: Characteristics, Behavior, Feeding and Nesting

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great white pelican

Pelicans are water birds with long bills and extendable pouches with a capacity of 12 liters. They weigh up to eight kilograms, making them among the largest flying birds, and have an awkward, ungainly appearance and have been described as feathered basset hounds. Pelicans are remarkably adapted for their water environment. They have air sacs under their skin that give them remarkable buoyancy and help stay upright in even the waviest conditions. [Source: Mel White, National Geographic, June 2006]

There are seven species of pelican. They have existed more or less in their present form for at least 20 million years. Pelicans tend to stay close to the shore rather than venture out into to the open ocean. Most pelicans nest and feed near fresh water and can feed in both fresh and sea water. The brown pelican is the only true marine pelican. It is the only one that dives for food. They others mostly sit on the surface and dip their bills into the water to feed. The word pelican originates from the Greek word pelakan, meaning "axe". In classical times, the word was applied to both pelicans and woodpeckers.

Pelican tend to live no longer than 20 years. Some pelicans have a nine foot wingspan, which is more suited more for soaring and gliding and picking up air currents than flapping, and gives them remarkable endurance and grace in the air. Many pelicans migrate between summer nesting areas and wintering areas to the south. They often fly in a V formation. Like bicycle riders, these birds use less energy if they follow in the slip stream of a bird front of them. As the group flies forward the bird at the front gets tired and goes the back and is replaced by another leader.

During the mating seasons both males and females of some species grow nobs on their bills. Adults are virtually voiceless. This means that their mating overtures are based on body language rather than calls. They express their desire by turning red in the face. Both males and females tend the nest and take care of incubating the eggs.

Websites and Resources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW); National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Encyclopedia of Life; Smithsonian Oceans Portal ; MarineBio

Pelecaniformes: Pelicans, Tropicbirds, Cormorants, and Relatives

From “Pelicans, Cormorants and their Relatives The Pelecaniformes” NHBS

Pelicans, tropicbirds, cormorants, and their relatives belong to an order of medium-sized and large waterbirds called Pelecaniformes. They are found worldwide, primarily in coastal and marine zones. As traditionally—but erroneously—defined, they encompass all birds that have feet with all four toes webbed and were formerly also known by such names as totipalmates or steganopodes. Pelecaniformes comprises six families (Phaethontidae (tropicbirds), Sulidae (boobies and gannets), Phalacrocoracidae (cormorants and shags), Anhingidae (anhingas), Pelecanidae (pelicans) and Fregatidae (frigatebirds)), six genera, and 67 species.[Source: Laura Howard, Animal Diversity Web (ADW)]

Most Pelecaniform birds have distensible gular sac located between the branches of the lower mandible. In tropicbirds the small gular region is feathered, in pelicans the bare sac is pendulous, and in frigatebirds the large, bare, red gular sac is inflatable. Only tropicbirds have exposed external nares. All pelecaniform birds' skulls lack supraorbital groove for a nasal gland and dorsal vertebrae are opisthocoelous (concave behind with the anterior end of the centrum flat or convex and the posterior concave.. Plumage ranges from mostly black with some white to mostly white with some black. Feet and bare regions of face and gular sac may become brightly colored during breeding. Most have desmognathous palate (distinct form of palate found in birds in which the maxillopalatine bones are fused) , except tropicbirds, which have schizognathous palate (a palate with a different bone structure). All except frigatebirds lack brood patches.

Pelecaniform birds feed primarily on fish and squid. They may also prey on mollusks, crustaceans, amphibians, reptiles, and invertebrates. Predators of pelecaniform birds include humans, birds, rats, cats, dogs, and reptiles. Some pelecaniforms are migratory (make seasonal movements between regions, such as between breeding and wintering grounds), whereas others are mostly sedentary (remain in the same area), with wide dispersal of young. All pelecaniforms are aquatic birds and associated with large bodies of water. Foraging techniques vary from hunting singly to foraging cooperatively in large groups, from plunge diving to surface diving, from underwater stalking ambushes to aerial and underwater pursuit diving. Species with large gular sacs use them in conjunction with foraging, mating displays and thermoregulation. /=\

Most pelecaniforms are gregarious, gathering in colonies for breeding and roosting in large groups. They are notably noisy when in large groups. Vocalizations are variable with species, and range from the sharp piercing whistle of the tropicbirds to the guttural grunting of cormorants. /=\

Humans exploit pelecaniform birds extensively. The eggs, chicks, and/or adults of many species are collected for consumption, purported medicinal purposes, or for goods and clothing. Humans collect and sell pelecaniform guano as fertilizer. Some species are trained and used by humans in conjunction with fishing. Twenty-two pelecaniform species are included in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. One species, Pallas's Cormorant (Phalacrocorax perspicillatus), is listed as 'Extinct'; two are listed as 'Critically Endangered' (Andrew's Frigatebird (Fregata andrewsi) and Abbott's Booby (Papasula abbotti)); and two species are listed as 'Endangered', (Flightless Cormorant (Phalacrocorax harrisi) and Chatham Island Shag (P. onslowi)). Of the remaining species, eleven are listed as 'Vulnerable' and six are 'Lower Risk'. Major threats include habitat destruction, introduced predators, pesticide poisoning and oil spills. /=\

Pelecaniforme History

Where Pelecaniformes fit in the evolution of bird orders, they are in the middle in blue

The oldest pelecaniform fossils include a phaethontid (Prophaethon) from England dating from the early Eocene Period (56 million to 33.9 million years ago) and a fregatid (Limnofregata) from Wyoming also dating to the Eocene Period (56 million to 33.9 million years ago). Phalacrocoracid fossils extend back to the Eocene-Oligocene Period (33 million years ago) boundary. [Source: Laura Howard, Animal Diversity Web (ADW)]

Sulid (Sula ronzoni) and pelecanid (Pelecanus gracilis) fossils from France date from the early Oligocene Period (33 million to 23.9 million years ago) and Early Miocene Period (23 million to 16 million years ago) respectively. Old and New world fossil anhingids date from the early (Anhinga subvolans) and the late Miocene(11.6 million to 5.3 million years ago)(A. pannonica, A. grandis). /=\

According to Animal Diversity Web: The evolutionary relationships of pelecaniform birds remain unclear and the monophyly of Pelecaniformes is strongly debated. Traditionally, Pelecaniformes (or Steganopodes) is a group comprising six families including:(Phaethontidae (tropicbirds), Sulidae (boobies and gannets), Phalacrocoracidae (cormorants and shags), Anhingidae (anhingas), Pelecanidae (pelicans) and Fregatidae (frigatebirds). Analyses of morphological and ethological evidence suggest that phaethontids are relatively primitive whereas frigatids are relatively most derived of the group. In contrast, fossil evidence appears to support the hypothesis that phaethontids and frigatids fall basal relative to the rest of the group. /=\

Pelecaniforme Reproduction and Nesting

Most pelecaniform birds are considered seasonally monogamous. Nest-sites and mates may change from year to year, except perhaps for sulids. Mating displays and pair formation behaviors are elaborate and complex. Generally males display to attract females. Females defend the nest-site and construct the nest from materials collected by the male. Copulations generally occur at the nest or display site. Many pelecaniforms breed in mixed colonies with other pelecaniforms, gulls, terns, or penguins. [Source: Laura Howard, Animal Diversity Web (ADW)]

Breeding may be annual or biennial, seasonal or year round. Pelecaniform birds nest in colonies, sometimes consisting of thousands of pairs. Nest sites are variable, located on the ground, in trees or shrubs, or on cliff ledges. Nests may be insubstantial scrapes or constructions of twigs and other materials. Clutch size varies with species and ranges from one to six eggs. Egg color ranges from white to pale green-blue to red-brown. /=\

In pelecaniform birds both sexes take approximately equal stints incubating eggs. All species except the frigatids lack brood patches and use foot webbing to transfer heat to eggs. Duration of incubation varies considerably from 24 -57 days. Young are altricial (born relatively helpless and in need of significant parental care) and all chicks, except tropicbirds, are born without natal down. Fledging age is highly variable, ranging from 65-210 days. Both parents brood and feed chicks regurgitated food. Many species have post-fledging care where parents continue to feed chicks, in some species post-fledging care is prolonged and may last for as long as 18 months. Age at first breeding varies with species and ranges from two to perhaps eleven years. /=\

Pelican Feeding and Predators

Brown pelicans, the only true marine pelican and the only ones that dive for food, catch fish by folding their wings in flight and plunging into the water at speeds up to 40 mph. Other pelicans such as the American white pelican float in large flocks and work co-operatively to herd schools of small fish into areas such as shallow water coves where the fish can be encircled like a net and scooped up by the pelicans with their pouch-like bills in a flurry of thrusting and swimming.

Great white pelicans

Many pelicans live in large flocks and work together to catch fish. They form squadrons of several dozen birds. Sometimes they form a ring and all dips their heads in the water at the same time. If a fish within the circle tries to get away it often will head straight towards one pelican in an effort to get away from another.

Brown pelicans are among the heaviest birds that catch fish by diving. David Attenborough, wrote in “The Life of Birds”, "They target individual fish, from thirty feet above the sea. Their dives are spectacular, as they draw back their wings, but they do not dive to a great depth. Their bodies are too big and buoyant, so though they hit the water with a considerable splash they cannot reach any fish, even with the tips of their long beak, that is more than thee feet down."

In the words of a famous liberica by Dixon Merriit a pelican’s “bill will hold more than his “belly can.” "When they surface, their baggy bills are full of water as well as fish. To get rid of the water, as they must do before they swallow their catch, they have to open their bills slightly” and turn their necks. They then tip their heads back to swallow the fish whole. Some birds hang around pelicans and try to snatch fish out of the pelican’s mouth. Pelican adults feed their young regurgitated fish or other creatures it catches. It takes about 70 kilograms of fish to raise one chick. Often pelicans travel more than 150 kilometers from their nests and back again to find food to feed their young.

Their main known predators of brown pelicans are humans. Mainly on the past, they have hunting pelicans for their meat, feathers, and eggs. Other predators of brown pelicans include fish crows, raccoons, bobcats, feral cats, feral dogs, Mexican spiny-tailed iguanas, American alligators, imported red fire ants, sharks and sea lions. Most of these feed on eggs and young.

Great white pelicans were hunted as a sport and their meat was sold as food. The Great Herbal of the Ming Dynasty states that the fat from the great white pelicans helps helps treat abscesses, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammation and clear the ears of deafness and stimulate circulation. The bills of these birds were thought to cure diarrhea, sores, and boils. The feathers and skins of the pelicans were thought to reduce vomiting. There is not evidence that these remedies worked. Predators of great white pelicans' eggs include foxes, gulls, frigatebirds, African sea eagles, crows and skuas. These pelicans have no marine predators. Most terrestrial predation occurs at night, when they are on the nest. To ward off predators, they release an odor from their uropygial gland, make threatening calls, move their head forward, and open and close their bill to scare off the predators. [Source: Emily Campbell, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Great White Pelicans

Great white pelicans

Great white pelicans (Scientific name: Pelecanus onocrotalus) live, fish, fly and breed in large social colonies. Great white pelicans are migratory birds. During the nonbreeding season, they can be found mostly in parts of Saudi Arabia along the Red Sea and in Africa as far south as Cape Town, South Africa. They range through Africa, from the west coast of Senegal to the east coast of Ethiopia, and are found as far north as Egypt, Israel and Jordan along the Mediterranean Sea. They are sometimes seen in India, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.[Source: Emily Campbell, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

During the breeding season, they can be found in parts of Europe and Central Asia as as far west as Montenegro, as far east as Kyrgyzstan, as far north as Kazakhstan, and as far south as Israel. They also has been found on the east coast of Romania and Bulgaria along the Black Sea during breeding season. Great white pelicans have been known to breed in parts of Turkey, northeastern Uzbekistan, the western half of Armenia, and the east coast of Azerbaijan.

Great white pelicans are not true marine pelicans because they can often be found around freshwater and they do not dive for food like brown pelicans. Great white pelicans are found near freshwater, saline and alkaline lakes. They commonly nest near large rivers, warm lagoons, shallow marshes, deltas and inland waters. They migrate through or nest in savanna grass lands, chaparrals, deserts, rainforests, and alpine biomes. The pelican can be found in mild to hot temperatures. The pelican is known as a ground nester, which uses sandbanks, mudflats, wet swamps, rocky ground, grass, or reed beds depending on which resource is abundantly supplied to make the nest. They are typically found near sea level but have been seen at elevations as high as 1372 meters (4501 feet).

The maximum documented of lifespan of a great white pelican in the wild is 28 years. The average lifespan in the wild is 15.5 years. One in captivity lived to be 51 years old. Great white pelican are not endangered. They are designated as a species of least concern on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List and have no special status according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Approximately 75,000 pairs live in Africa. /=\

Great White Pelican Characteristics and Flying

Great white pelicans are really big birds. They range in weight from 9 to 11.8 kilograms (20 to 26 pounds) and range in length from 137 to 168 centimeters (4.5 to 5.5 feet). Their wingspan ranges from 274 to 335 centimeters (9 to 11 feet) Sexual dimorphism (differences between males and females) occurs: Males are larger than females. sexes colored or patterned differently. [Source: Emily Campbell, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Great white pelican

Great white pelicans have white feathers with black flight feathers. They have a large bill that is bright yellow, rosy pink, and light blue. The bill is horn-shaped at the base, and frail. A large yellow pouch is underneath the bill. The pelicans have short pink to yellow colored legs and have feet with four webbed toes. Their irises are a red or red-brown. During the breeding season, their feathers turn a rosy pink and a yellowish-brown stain on the chest becomes present. Males have a pink patch of skin around the eyes and females have a yellowish orange patch of skin around the eyes during breeding season. /=\

Great white pelicans are good gliders. But because these birds are so big and adapated for flying and swimming they have a hard time lifting off and landing because they are unable to hop, but accommodate this by having short legs. Once in the air, the pelicans use thermal updrafts to fly, which helps them maintain a horizontal glide. During flight, flocks flap their wings in a synchronized in a way that benefits all the birds in the V-shape formation. /=\

Great White Pelican Behavior, Communication and Migrations

Great white pelicans are diurnal (active during the daytime), crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk), motile (move around as opposed to being stationary), migratory (make seasonal movements between regions, such as between breeding and wintering grounds), sedentary (remain in the same area), solitary, colonial (living together in groups or in close proximity to each other). They sleep in lakes or reeds, use the Eurasian-East African Flyway when they migrate and fly 60 kilometers to 100 kilometers away from their nest everyday for food in the nesting season. Although they can be territorial about their nesting and breeding sites, great white pelican can live in mixed colonies with the brown pelicans because there is not a lot of competition because of the different breeding seasons. [Source: Emily Campbell, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Great white pelicans are social birds and many of their activities are performed with other great white pelicans. After the pelicans are done foraging, they roost on rocks, on the ground and in trees. They groom themselves with their large beaks after entering the water, and use their preening gland to make their feathers waterproof for the next time they are to go into the water. /=\

Great white pelicans range: breeding areas in yellow, wintering and feeding areas in blue

Great white pelicans migrate in the autumn between late August and October, and in the spring, beginning in April. Immature pelicans migrate earlier during the winter, and join the flock during the spring migration. During migration, the pelican migrates an average of 133-160 kilometers per day and can travel a speeds at 30- 44.5 kilometers per hour. The longer the migration, the larger the flock will be. Departure fights can have two to 63 individuals in the flock. Arriving flocks include two to 75 birds.

Great white pelicans sense using vision, touch, sound and chemicals usually detected with smell. They communicate with vision, touch, sound, movement, and posture. They make hisses and grunts to warn off predators and bay or moo towards their mate. They make a loud grunt when taking off within a flock and are usually silent when alone. During the breeding season, males communicate sexual signals visually by changing their feather colors, which fade to pink. The change in color might be useful in warning off predators or undesired females, or can be used to attract a mate. To threaten predators, these pelican open their bill, raise it, and wave it. The pelicans raise a closed bill with the gular pouch expanded towards mates, chicks, and other pelicans as a sign of threat or courtship. /=\

Great White Pelican Food and Feeding Behavior

Great white pelicans mostly eat fish but but have been known to eat cormorant and gull eggs. Among the fish species they eat are southern mouthbrooders (Pseudocrenilarus philander), common barbels (Barbus barbus), jarbua terapon (Terapon jarbua), great barracuda, flathead grey mullet (Mugil cephalus), and smallspotted grunter (Pomadasys commersonnii). Pelicans also eat other aquatic animals like squid and shrimp. They usually eats fish weighing between 300 and 600 grams. One study found the pelican's diet was 81.9 percent fish, 13.1 percent worms, 4.05 percent invertebrates, and 0.94 percent amphibians. [Source: Emily Campbell, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Great white pelicans typically forages in the early morning, early evening, or on full moon nights. They usually feed on fish in warm, shallow waters, sometimes by themselves. Great white pelicans will fly between 60 and 100 kilometers from their colony to feed. It is estimated they need around 1.45 to 2.25 kilograms of food a day depending on the climate. These pelican often fish with other birds, like brown pelicans and great cormorants.

When fish are in short supply great white pelicans fish in a group with up to 20 members by swimming in a V-shaped formation towards land. The use the technique to push the fish inland, where the birds scoop up fish up with their large bills and pouches in a choreographed manner. The pelicans let the water drain, and then swallow the fish. /=\

Great White Pelican Mating, Nesting and Offspring

Great white pelicans engage in seasonal breeding, from April to August in Europe, and year-round breeding in Africa in three waves. Mature pelicans have light pink coloration in the feathers during the breeding season, Males grow a large bump near their eyes. This shows females the males’ strength as the bump affects vision while fishing. Males with larger bumps are considered to be more successful breeders. The number of eggs laid each season ranges from one to three. The time to hatching ranges from 29 to 36 days, with the fledging age ranging from 9 to 10 weeks and the average time to independence is 10 weeks. Females and males reach sexual maturity at three to 4 years.[Source: Emily Campbell, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Great white pelicans form monogamous pairs. Their courtship ritual consists of circle flying by both sexes around the nesting site. Males build a nest, raising their closed bill, and expand their gular pouch as part of their mating ritual. Sexual intercourse between the two pelicans begins three to ten days before the laying of eggs. Pair bonding may last more than one breeding season. However, one mate may not always be faithful. The unfaithful pelican may mate with other pelicans in the same or different breeding sites.

Breeding sites consist of swamps, lakes, island and wetlands. Pelicans usually go to familiar past breeding sites but can establish a new breeding colony if habitat is lost or disturbed. Out of three eggs, usually only one chicks survives because younger and non-surviving chicks are out-competed for food the surviving chick.

Mature pelicans start breeding as early as three years old. The average female pelican has multiple clutches in her lifetime. Pairing of mates can happen on land, in air, and in water. The nest is constructed in an organized manner with two nests per square meter. Sticks and reeds that are brought in the male pelican’s pouch make up the nest. Great white pelican sometimes breed and nest with brown pelicans and great cormorants. /=\

Male and female pelicans both incubating the eggs above or under their feet. While one is incubating the eggs, the other forages for food. Both parents take care of young until about 8-10 weeks. For the first two weeks, the young get fed regularly from both parents. The parents pour food from their beak, into the young's beak. After seven days, the young pelican is able to eat out of the parent's pouch. Young are fed multiple times a day for the first 30 days. When the chick is 30-35 day old the feeding is reduced to once a day, and then around 50-60 days old it is cut back to every other day until the young is ready to leave the nest. The young is usually ready to leave the nest in 10 weeks. Sometimes the parent pelicans feed the young pelican after it fledges. This happens because the young pelican may not be able to catch its own food. When pelicans first hatches, they have no feathers. When they are juveniles, they grow grayish-brown feathers within 9-10 weeks.

When pelican chicks reach about eight weeks, they will leave the nest to wander and form pods, which protects the young while the adult pelicans are feeding. When the parent returns from fishing, they find and only feed their own chick. Parents pelican can be rough with their young. If the young don’t eat the parent can drag the young by their head. Before or after eating, chick collapse and lay comatose. It is unknown why they do this.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, NOAA

Text Sources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW); National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Wikipedia, National Geographic, Live Science, BBC, Smithsonian, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, Lonely Planet Guides and various books and other publications.

Last Updated May 2023

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