The pelican (Pelecanus) is a water bird found in all parts of the world except Antarctica. Its shape and, above all, the very firm skin on the lower beak make the bird unique and easily recognizable. The eight species of pelicans have a heterogeneous global distribution spanning latitude from the tropics to the temperate zone, although the birds are absent from inland South America, the polar regions, and the open ocean.

Origin type and description

Photo: Pelican

Photo: Pelican

The genus of pelicans (Pelecanus) was first officially described by Linnaeus in 1758. The name comes from the ancient Greek word pelekan (πελεκάν), which comes from the word pelekys (πέλεκυς), meaning “ax”. The Pelicanea family was introduced by the French polymath C. Rafinesque in 1815. Pelicans give their name to the pelican-like Pelecaniformes.

Video: Pelican

Until recently, the order was not fully defined and, in addition to pelicans, it included gannets (Sulidae), frigatebirds (Fregatidae), phaetonids (Phaethontidae), cormorants (Phalacrocoracidae), serpentines (Anhingidae), while shoebill ( Shoebill), egrets (Egrets) and ibises (Ibises) and spoonbills (Plataleinae) were among the storks (Ciconiiformes). It turned out that the similarity between these birds — by accident, the result of parallel evolution. Molecular — the biological evidence for DNA comparison clearly speaks against such a combination.

Interesting Fact: DNA studies have shown that three New World pelicans formed one lineage, from the American white pelican, and five Old World species — from the pink-backed pelican, while the Australian white pelican was their closest relative. The pink pelican also belonged to this line, but was the first to deviate from the common ancestor of four other species. This discovery indicates that pelicans first evolved in the Old World and spread to North and South America, and the preference for nesting in trees or on the ground has more to do with size than genetics.

Fossils found show that pelicans have existed for at least 30 million years. The oldest known pelican fossils have been found in early Oligocene deposits in the Luberon in southeastern France. They are surprisingly similar to modern forms. An almost complete beak is preserved, morphologically identical to that of modern pelicans, showing that this advanced feeding apparatus already existed at that time.

An early Miocene fossil was named Miopelecanus — fossil genus, species M. gracilis, based on certain characters, was initially considered unique, but then it was decided that it was an intermediate species.

Appearance and features

Photo: Pelican Bird

Photo: Pelican Bird

Pelicans are very large water birds. Curly Pelican can reach the largest sizes. This makes it one of the largest and heaviest flying birds. The smallest species is the brown pelican. The skeleton accounts for only about 7% of the body weight of the heaviest pelicans. The most striking feature of the pelicans — beak. The throat pouch is extremely enlarged and connected to the lower beak, from which it hangs like an elastic skin pouch. Its capacity can reach 13 liters, it is used as a fishing net when catching fish. It closes tightly with a long, slightly downward-sloping upper bill.

The eight living species have the following characteristics:

  • American white pelican (P. erythrorhynchos): length 1.3– 1.8 m, wingspan 2.44–2.9 m, weight 5–9 kg. The plumage is almost entirely white, with the exception of the wing feathers, which are only visible in flight;
  • American brown pelican (P. occidentalis): length up to 1.4 m, wingspan 2–2.3 m, weight 3.6–4.5 kg. This is the smallest pelican, characterized by brown-brown plumage.;
  • Peruvian pelican (P. thagus): length up to 1.52 m, wingspan 2.48 m, average weight 7 kg. Dark with a white stripe from the head on the sides of the neck;
  • pink pelican (P. onocrotalus): length 1.40–1.75 m, wingspan 2.45–2.95 m, weight 10–11 kg. The plumage is whitish-pink, with pink spots on the face and legs;
  • Australian pelican (P. conspicillatus): length 1.60–1.90 m, wingspan 2.5–3.4 m, weight 4–8.2 kg. Predominantly white interspersed with black, with a large, pale pink beak;
  • pink-backed pelican (P. rufescens): length 1.25–1.32 m, wingspan 2.65–2.9 m, weight 3.9–7 kg. Grey-white plumage, sometimes pinkish on the back, with yellow upper jaw and gray pouch;
  • Dalmatian pelican (P. crispus): length 1.60–1.81 m, wingspan 2.70–3 .20 m, weight 10–12 kg. The largest greyish-white pelican, has curly feathers on the head and upper neck;
  • gray pelican (P. philippensis): length 1.27–1.52 m, wingspan 2.5 m, weight c. 5 kg. Mostly gray-white plumage, with a gray crest. During breeding season, pinkish with a spotted pouch.

Where does the pelican live?

Photo: Pelican in Russia

Photo: Pelican in Russia

Modern pelicans live on all continents, excluding Antarctica. Two species live in Russia: pink (P. onocrotalus) and curly pelican (P. crispus). In Europe, there are numerous populations in the Balkans, the most famous colonies of the pink and curly pelican are located in the Danube Delta. In addition, these two species are still found on Lake Prespa and on the eastern coast of the Sea of ​​Azov. In addition, the curly pelican is also found in some colonies in the lower reaches of the Volga and on the northern coast of the Caspian Sea.

These two species and the gray pelican (P. philippensis) are also found in Western and Central Asia. The latter is also in South Asia. Africa is home to the pink-backed pelican (P. rufescens), which lives in tropical and subtropical regions. The breeding and wintering grounds are in the Roselle Canyon, which extends from the Sahel to South Africa.

The Australian pelican (P. conspicillatus) lives in Australia and Tasmania and is regularly seen outside the breeding season in New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and the Lesser Sunda Islands. The American white pelican (P. erythrorhynchos) breeds in the Midwest of North America and southern Canada, and winters along the coasts of North and Central America. The coasts of the American dual continent are home to the brown pelican (P. occidentalis).

Interesting fact: In winter, some species can withstand severe frosts, but need ice-free waters. Most species prefer fresh water. They can be found in lakes or river deltas, and since pelicans don't dive deep, they need shallow depths. This is the reason why birds are practically absent from deep lakes. Brown Pelican — the only species that lives all year round exclusively by the sea.

Most pelicans are non-migratory birds that travel short distances. This applies to tropical species, but also to the Dalmatian Pelicans of the Danube Delta. On the other hand, pink pelicans from the Danube Delta migrate to the wintering areas of Africa after the breeding season. They spend two or three days in Israel, where tons of fresh fish are delivered to the birds.

What does a pelican eat?

Photo: Pelican Beak

Photo: Pelican's Beak

Bird food consists almost exclusively of fish. Sometimes there are pelicans that feed exclusively on crustaceans. In the Danube Delta, carp and perch are the most important prey for local pelican species. The American white pelican feeds mainly on cyprinids of various species, which are not of interest to commercial fisheries. In Africa, pelicans capture cichlid fish from the genera Tilapia and Haplochromis, and in southeast Africa — eggs and chicks of Cape cormorants (P. capensis). Off the coast of Florida, the brown pelican feeds on menhaden, herring, anchovies, and Pacific sardines.

Fun fact: Pelicans eat 10% of their body weight per day. This is about 1.2 kg for a white pelican. If you add that, the entire pelican population in African Nakuroussi consumes 12,000 kg of fish per day, or 4,380 tons of fish per year.

Different species use different hunting methods, but they all hunt mostly in groups. The most common — swim by driving the fish into shallow water where they can no longer escape into the depths and are thus easily caught. Sometimes these actions are facilitated by strong wing beats on the surface of the water. Other options are to form a circle and close the exit of the fish into an open space, or two straight lines swimming towards each other.

With a huge beak, pelicans plow through the water and catch the driven fish. The success rate is 20%. After a successful catch, the water remains outside the skin bag and the fish is swallowed whole. All species can also fish alone, and some prefer to do so, but the methods described above are observed in all species. Only brown and Peruvian pelicans hunt from the air. They capture fish at great depths, descending vertically from a height of 10 to 20 meters.

Now you know where the pelican bird puts the fish. Let's see how he lives in the wild.

Character and lifestyle features

Photo: Pelican in flight

Photo: Pelican in flight

Lives, breeds, migrates, feeds in large colonies. Fishing takes up a very small part of a pelican's day, as most individuals finish feeding by 8-9 am. The rest of the day is spent doing nothing – cleaning and bathing. These events are held on sandbanks or small islands.

The bird bathes by tilting its head and body towards the water, flapping its wings. The pelican opens its beak or spreads its wings when its temperature rises in order to carry out thermoregulation of the body. Defending their territory, males threaten intruders. The pelican attacks with its beak as its primary weapon.

Interesting Fact: The eight living species are divided into two groups, one containing four species of ground-nest-building adults with mostly white plumage (Australian, Dalmatian, Great White and American White Pelican) and the other containing four grey-brown plumage species. which preferentially nested in trees (pink, gray and brown pelicans) or on sea cliffs (Peruvian pelican).

The weight of the bird makes lifting a very difficult procedure. The pelican has to flap its wings for a long time on the surface of the water before it can rise into the air. But if the bird has successfully risen into the air, it continues to fly confidently. Pelicans can fly 24 hours without a break, covering up to 500 km.

The flight speed can reach 56 km/h, the altitude is more than 3000 m. In flight, pelicans bend their neck back so that the head is between the shoulders, and the heavy beak can be supported by the neck. Since the musculature does not allow constant flapping of the wings, pelicans alternate long gliding phases with flapping.

Social Structure and Reproduction

Photo: Pelican Family

Photo: Pelican Family

Pelicans breed in colonies, with larger and denser colonies forming birds breeding on the ground. Sometimes mixed colonies are created: in the Danube Delta, pink and curly pelicans often breed together. Tree-nesting species nest near storks and cormorants. Pelican colonies used to number in the millions, the largest pelican colony to date — it is a colony on Lake Rukwa in Tanzania with 40,000 pairs.

The breeding season begins in temperate latitudes in spring, in European and North American species in April. In tropical climates, there are usually no fixed breeding seasons, and eggs can be incubated throughout the year. The beaks, pouches, and bare facial skin of all species become brightly colored before the start of the breeding season. Males perform a courtship ritual that differs from species to species but involves raising the head and beak and ballooning the skin sac on the lower beak.

Nest building is very different from species to species. Very often, one excavation is made on the soil without any material. Tree nests are more complex designs. The gray pelican breeds on mango trees, fig trees, or coconut trees. The nest consists of branches and is lined with grasses or rotting aquatic plants. It has a diameter of about 75 cm and a height of 30 cm. The stability of the nest is quite low, so a new nest is built every year.

Usually two eggs are laid, but clutches with one and even six eggs appear. Incubation time 30 — 36 days. The chicks are initially naked, but quickly become covered with down. At the age of eight weeks, the downy dress is replaced by young plumage. Initially, the cubs ate stale food porridge. The first chick that hatches pushes its brothers and sisters out of the nest. At the age of 70 to 85 days, the chicks become independent and leave their parents after 20 days. At the age of three or four, pelicans breed for the first time.

Natural enemies of pelicans

Photo: Pelican Bird

Photo: Pelican Bird

In many parts of the world, pelicans have long been hunted for a variety of reasons. In East Asia, the fat layer of juvenile birds is considered a cure in traditional Chinese medicine. Also in India, this fat is considered effective against rheumatic diseases. In southeastern Europe, beak throat pouches were used to make pouches, tobacco bags, and scabbards.

Fun fact: South American brown pelican colonies were exploited in a special way. Together with the Peruvian gannet and the bougainvillea cormorant, faeces were collected on a large scale as fertilizer. As the workers broke the eggs and killed the chicks, the colonies were wiped out during maintenance.

A sustainable coexistence between humans and gray pelicans is taking place in the villages of the Indian state of Karnataka. Where pelicans nest on rooftops like white storks. The locals use the excrement as fertilizer and sell the excess to neighboring villages. Therefore, pelicans are not only tolerated, but also protected. Under natural conditions, among animals, pelicans do not have many enemies because of their impressive size.

The main predators of pelicans include:

  • crocodiles (attack an adult bird);


  • foxes (prey on chicks);
  • hyenas;
  • birds of prey.

Population and species status

Photo: Pelican

Photo: Pelican

The number of populations nesting in water bodies that dry out and then fill with water is subject to significant fluctuations – nesting colonies appear and disappear again. However, Dalmatian and Gray Pelicans are listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. Less common are 2 subspecies of the brown pelican, namely the Californian and the Atlantic.

The main reason for the decline is the use of DDT and other strong pesticides in the US. The use of pesticides along with food has led to a significant decrease in the fertility of birds. Since 1972, the use of DDT has been banned in the United States, and the number began to gradually recover. The large African population of the pink pelican is approximately 75,000 pairs. Therefore, despite the reduction of individuals in Europe, the species as a whole is not threatened.

The main reasons for the reduction of pelicans are:

  • competition of local fishermen for fish;
  • wetland drainage;
  • shooting;
  • water pollution;
  • overexploitation of fish stocks;
  • tourist and anglers;
  • collision with overhead power lines.

In captivity, pelicans adapt well and live to 20+ years, but rarely breed. Although no species of pelican is seriously endangered, many have significantly reduced their populations. An example is the pink pelican, which lived in the mouths of the Rhine and Elbe even in the ancient Roman era. There were about a million couples in the Danube Delta in the 19th century. In 1909, this number was reduced to 200.

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