All About Pelicans: The Bucket-Billed Birds

Leave a comment / / Updated on: 11th November 2023

NamePelicansDietCarnivorous (piscivorous)
Scientific namePelecanusWeight15 kilograms (33 pounds) 
Pronunciationpeh-luh-knzLength160-183 centimeters (63 to 72 inches) 
(For Wingspan: 2.4 to 3.5 meters (8 to 11.6 feet)
ClassificationAves, Pelecaniformes, PelecanidaeLocationWorldwide except Antarctica

The Pelican

Pelican standing on wooden post against blue sky
Pelican standing on wooden post against blue sky / imamember via iStock

Pelicans are among the most recognizable water birds. 

There are about eight species of birds in the Pelecanus genus, collectively called pelicans. 

They are known for their massive bill and large throat pouch. 

The throat pouch is elastic and is mainly used for catching fish. 

The genus name is from the Greek word “pelekan,” which means ax, referring to their large ax-like bill. 

Pelicans are water birds, so they tend to be clumsy on land. 

They’re more at home in the water and are remarkable swimmers. 

Pelicans are excellent fliers, too, and can soar high up in the skies when they need to despite their massive size. 

In this article, we’ll explore all the fascinating facts about pelicans, including their appearance, habits, habitats, and scientific significance.

Gage Beasley's In-Demand Plush Toys
Gage Beasley’s In-Demand Plush Toys

Taxonomy and Classification

Pelican is the common name for birds in the Pelecanus genus. 

This genus has eight living species, found on all continents except Antarctica. 

These large water birds belong to the family Pelecanidae. 

The Pelecanus genus is the only living genus in the family. 

Pelicans are related to shoebills, hamerkops, Ibises, herons, spoonbills, and bitterns. 

Gage Beasley's Pelican Stuffed Plush Toy
Gage Beasley’s Pelican Stuffed Plush Toy

Collectively, these birds have been classified in the order Pelecaniformes. 

Pelicans have been around since the Late Eocene. 

Fossil evidence suggests that these water birds evolved as early as 36 million years ago. 

Leg bones of birds similar to modern pelicans have been found in rocks dating back to this period. 

They evolved in the Old World (the continents of Africa, Europe, and Asia), from where they spread to the Americas and other parts of the world. 

Today, living species in the genus are still classified as Old World and New World lineages. 

Physical Characteristics

Pelican tidying its feathers
Pelican tidying its feathers / Georgie Greene via iStock

Pelicans have a distinctive appearance and are relatively easy to identify. 

They are known for their long bills with a stretchy throat pouch underneath the lower bill.

This large, elastic pouch is also called the gular pouch.  

The pouch can hold up to three gallons of water. 

Pelicans also have long, slender necks and short legs with large webbed feet. 

Pelicans are among the biggest living bird species. 

Their size varies depending on the species, but the Dalmatian pelican (Pelecanus crispus) is the largest. 

Pelecanus crispus also known as Dalmatian Pelican
Pelecanus crispus also known as Dalmatian Pelican / image via Wikimedia Commons CC A-SA 4.0

It is arguably the largest freshwater bird as well, with an average length of about 160 to 183 centimeters (5.3 to 6 feet). 

It weighs up to 15 kilograms (33 pounds) and has a wingspan of about 2.4 to 3.5 meters (8 to 11.6 feet). 

Even the smallest species in the genus (the brown pelican) have individuals that weigh up to 6.1 pounds, with a wingspan of about 1.83 meters (6.0 feet).

Males of all pelican species tend to be larger than females. 

The Australian pelican has the longest bill of all pelican species. 

Their bill can grow to a length of about 0.5 meters (1.6 feet), which is the longest of any bird species. 

Pelican wings are long and broad. 

A brown pelican with its wings spread in flight
A brown pelican with its wings spread in flight / image via Wikimedia Commons CC A-SA 4.0

They’re suitably shaped for gliding and soaring and have many flight feathers. 

Their tail is short and square-shaped. 

Pelicans and their closest relatives are the only birds with webbings connecting all four of their toes. 

This type of foot structure is known as totipalmate feet, and it makes them very efficient swimmers. 

Most species of pelicans have light-colored plumage. 

The brown and Peruvian pelicans are the only exceptions to this, as they tend to have a  brownish-gray body. 

A Brown Pelican in Ensenada, Baja California
A Brown pelican in Ensenada, Baja California / Tomascastelazo via Wikimedia Commons CC A-SA 3.0

Their plumage becomes more vibrant during the breeding season, and the skin on their neck and face will also take on a different color depending on the species. 

For instance, the throat pouch of the California brown pelican turns a bright red before the breeding season starts, which will fade to yellow after the bird lays eggs. 

For the Peruvian pelican, the throat pouch turns blue ahead of the breeding season.

Habitat and Distribution

Pelicans are waterbirds associated with a wide range of aquatic environments. 

Many pelican species are found in coastal areas, including shorelines, saltwater estuaries, and bays. 

Some of these birds, such as the brown pelicans, are well adapted to marine environments and are often seen soaring over the ocean, searching for fish.

Other pelican species prefer freshwater habitats. 

These are typically seen on large inland lakes, rivers, and wetlands habitats formed by freshwater bodies.

Pelicans live worldwide, but they have a patchy distribution. 

They live on all continents except Antarctica. 

A pelican stands in a forest clearing
A pelican stands in a forest clearing / image via Wikimedia Commons CC A-SA 4.0

These birds are mainly found around inland and coastal waters but are absent in the polar regions, open ocean, and oceanic islands. 

Pelicans mainly live in warm tropical and temperate zones. 

Their range covers latitudes of about 45 degrees south and about 60 degrees North. 

Behavior and Social Structure

Pelicans have short legs with webbed feet, which makes them quite clumsy on land. 

This works to their benefit in the water, and they tend to be strong swimmers. 

They are efficient fliers as well. 

Pelicans have a fibrous layer in their breast muscles, which helps to hold their massive wings up. 

A group of American White Pelicans glide smoothly across a serene lake
A group of American White Pelicans glide smoothly across a serene lake / Cvmontuy via Wikimedia Commons CC A-SA 4.0

They also have numerous flight feathers and can leverage wind thermals to soar to heights of up to 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) or more. 

Large groups of pelicans fly together, flapping their wings in tight “V” formation to travel long distances. 

Flying like this, they can cover distances of up to 150 kilometers (93 miles) in a single flight. 

Pelicans are not highly territorial birds. 

They interact well with other birds and members of their own species. 

They establish breeding territories during the nesting season. 

These territories are typically located on islands or remote areas near water bodies, where they build nests and raise their young. 

A group of Great White Pelican
A group of Great White Pelican / MartinThoma via Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Outside of the breeding season, pelicans are more nomadic, which means they move around in search of food instead of staying within a fixed territory.

Many pelican species migrate actively, too, based on food availability and seasonal changes. 

During winter, these birds move to warmer regions where they can find a more abundant supply of fish and will return to their typical range when the weather warms up. 

Pelicans typically gather in large colonies to build nests and raise their young. 

But outside the breeding season, they tend to hunt or forage alone or in small groups with just a few individuals. 

Some species are known to exhibit cooperative feeding behavior. 

These species typically work together to increase their fishing success. 

Pelican with others behind it
Pelican with others behind it / Steve Daggar Photography via Getty Images

Pelican colonies tend to be noisy because both adults and chicks vocalize extensively. 

In addition to their loud grunts, adult pelicans communicate through visual displays with their wings and bills. 

They may thrust and snap at opponents with their bills while waving their wings aggressively to threaten them. 

Interestingly, adult pelicans are generally silent when they’re not in colonies with other pelicans. 

Diet and Feeding

Pelicans are carnivores with a predominantly piscivorous diet. 

This means they feed mainly on fish. 

However, they may occasionally prey on other aquatic animals, such as crayfish, crabs, and other crustaceans. 

A pelican snatching a fish
A pelican snatching a fish / merlinpf via iStock

Pelicans may also prey on amphibians, turtles, insects, and small mammals occasionally. 

During periods of scarcity, these birds have been observed capturing and eating other birds, such as seagulls and ducks. 

They hold these birds underwater until they drown before swallowing them headfirst. 

Pelicans also steal prey from other waterbirds. 

Some species prefer to feed alone, such as the Dalmatian, spot-billed, and pink-backed pelicans. 

Other species feed cooperatively, encircling large schools of fish and driving them into shallow water. 

Pelicans typically catch fish with the bill tip, toss it up in the air, and catch it with their large neck pouch. 

Pelican eating its catch
Pelican eating its catch / tracielouise via iStock

They may also use their pouch like a fishing net to scoop up fish, then tip their heads forward to drain the excess water. 

Contrary to the common misconception, pelicans don’t store food in their pouch.  

Once prey is caught, they typically throw their head back and swallow it whole. 

Brown pelicans are the only pelican species known to catch fish by plunge-diving in the water. 

They can spot fish from above and dive from heights up to 70 feet (21 meters). 

Brown pelicans dive headfirst into the water and may sometimes submerge their entire body to catch fish.

Reproduction and Life Cycle

A flock of pelicans gathered, showcasing their communal nature
A flock of pelicans gathered, showcasing their communal nature / image via iStock

Pelicans are social birds known for their colonial nesting habits. 

White pelican species typically nest on the ground on islands and remote seashores. 

The brown pelicans nest in trees. 

Pelicans form mating pairs and are monogamous for a single mating season. 

The ground-nesting pelicans have more elaborate courtship displays to attract suitable mates. 

A group of males may chase a single female in the water or the air while aggressively gaping and thrusting their bills at each other. 

Some species, like the American pelicans, present nesting materials to the female to impress her.

American White Pelican Flying in Dallas, USA
American White Pelican Flying in Dallas, USA / Manjith Kainickara via Wikipedia CC BY-SA 2.0

Tree-nesting species only advertise their plumage to females to attract a suitable mate. 

Courtship displays are typically completed in a day, after which copulation occurs. 

Copulation continues for three to ten days before egg-laying.

During the period, the male brings nesting material to the female, who heaps it up to form a simple nest.  

Pelicans lay between two to six eggs per clutch.

Both males and females take turns to incubate their eggs using their feet. 

The incubation period for pelicans is between 30 and 36 days. 

Two pelicans gliding on the river
Two pelicans gliding on the river / image via Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0

Although 95% of eggs hatch successfully, at least one hatchling will die within a few weeks due to sibling competition. 

Both parents participate actively in parental care, taking turns to bring food to the nest. 

Although the hatchlings gather in pods or creches containing up to 100 birds, parents can recognize their own young. 

Pelican juveniles become fully independent at about 10 to 12 weeks old. 

They may remain in the nest with their parent after this but have to find food on their own. 

Pelicans have an average lifespan of about 15 to 25 years in the wild. 

Individuals in captivity tend to live longer, with the maximum recorded age for a pelican being 54 years. 

Ecological Role and Interactions

Close-up of a pelican with a fish in its beak
Close-up of a pelican with a fish in its beak / Backyard-Photography via iStock

Pelicans are predominantly piscivorous birds, meaning they play a vital role in regulating fish populations. 

The feeding activities of these water birds help regulate the abundance of various fish species and other aquatic organisms. 

This prevents overpopulation and overexploitation of aquatic resources, which is crucial to the overall health of the ecosystem. 

Pelicans can work together with other water birds to catch fish. 

They force schools of fish into shallow water by splashing the surface with their wings, making them easier to catch.

Pelicans may sometimes steal prey from other water birds. 

Conversely, gulls steal prey from pelicans, too. 

The gull may stand on the pelican’s head and grab fish from its open bill before it can swallow. 

Conservation Status and Threats

An Australian Pelican swimming in Australian waters
An Australian Pelican swimming in Australian waters / Geoff Penaluna via Wikipedia CC BY 2.0

The conservation status of pelican species varies from species to species. 

At least five pelican species are listed as species of “Least Concern” by the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN). 

This includes the pink-backed, American white, great white, Australian, and brown pelicans. 

This means they are currently not facing significant threats.

The Australian pelican, in particular, is a conservation success story. 

According to the National Audubon Society, the global population of this bird is currently about 300,000. 

This is significant because their population plummeted to an all-time low in the 1950s and 60s, mainly due to environmental pollution caused by the pesticide DDT. 

A group of pelicans resting
A group of pelicans resting / Adam Jones via Getty Images

The species teetered on the brink of extinction, so they listed it as Endangered in 1970.

In 1972, countries in North America banned the use of DDT. 

This and other measures helped the brown pelicans recover. 

Three species (Peruvian, Dalmatian, and spot-billed pelicans) are currently listed as Near Threatened. 

This is due to specific threats these species face in their respective regions. 

Common threats to the pelican population include pollution of their aquatic environment, climate change, and human disturbance. 

Overfishing also reduces prey availability for these birds, potentially leading to food scarcity. 

Unique Adaptations and Survival Strategies

Several pelicans gathered
Several pelicans gathered / CazG Photography via Getty Images

The pelican’s expandable throat pouch is one of its most distinctive adaptations. 

They use this pouch to capture large prey, which they can then swallow whole. 

The great white pelican has been recorded taking fish of up to 1,850 grams (4.1 pounds) in its massive pouch.

Pelicans have large, webbed feet adapted for efficient swimming and diving. 

Despite their bulky build, pelicans are quite lightweight. 

Their bones have air sacs, making them relatively buoyant in the water. 

Consequently, pelicans can float in the water with only a tiny part of their body below the surface. 

They use oily secretions produced by preening glands at the base of their tail to make their plumage waterproof; this is quite helpful in the aquatic environment where they live.

Cultural Significance and Human Interactions

Pelicans in a national zoo
Pelicans in a national zoo / Sifat Sharker via Wikipedia CC BY-SA 4.0

In some Christian traditions, they consider the pelican a symbol of self-sacrifice and charity.

People believe that pelicans would pierce their breasts to feed their young with their blood.

Although this isn’t scientifically accurate, many see this act of selflessness as a metaphor for Christ’s sacrifice.

The belief likely stems from the pelican’s red-tipped beak and their tendency to rest with their beaks on their breasts. 

The pouch of some pelican species, such as the Dalmatian pelican, turns red during the breeding season, too, but that’s not because they feed their young with blood. 

Mythology across various cultures also mentions pelicans.

For instance, ancient Egyptian mythology associates the goddess Isis with the bird.

An illustration of the Egyptian Goddess Isis based on a painting in the tomb of Seti
An illustration of the Egyptian Goddess Isis based on a painting in the tomb of Seti / EternalSpace1977 via Wikipedia CC BY-SA 4.0

Historically, humans hunted pelicans to use their feathers for making hats in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Hunters targeting migratory birds also killed them.

This led to population declines in some areas.

In more recent years, the recognition of the need to protect these birds has led to the introduction of various laws to safeguard them.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act, for instance, prevents killing these birds during their migratory journey.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency also banned the use of the pesticide DDT. 

These legislations have helped pelican populations recover and expand in the past 50 years. 

Future Prospects and Research

A Peruvian Pelican swimming in the sea near Lima, Peru
A Peruvian Pelican swimming in the sea near Lima, Peru / Manuel González Olaechea y Franco via Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0

Thanks to recent technological advancements, researchers have been able to track and monitor the movement and behavior of pelican populations across various locations.. 

The data derived from studying these birds have helped identify critical foraging areas, foraging routes, and nesting locations. 

Understanding these patterns will be valuable for various conservation efforts, such as designating protected areas and managing human activities in critical habitats.

Like other birds, pelicans are susceptible to various parasites and diseases. 

One study identified 75 different species of parasites, including tapeworms, fleas, ticks, nematodes, and flukes, in the American white pelican.

Studies on the physiology and health of pelicans and other related bird species are currently ongoing. 

These studies will provide insights into their resilience and help identify potential threats to pelican populations, leading to better mitigation measures. 


Pelicans are among the largest living bird species in the world. 

Indeed, not only does this massive water bird reside on every continent except Antarctica, but it also thrives in both coastal and freshwater habitats.

Pelicans have long bills and massive throat pouches that they use to scoop up fish.

They are social birds that form large aggregations, especially during mating season. 

Conservation efforts to protect pelicans have been quite successful, and most species currently enjoy a stable population. 

Local threats within their region still affect some pelican populations, which may reduce their abundance and drive them to extinction.


Leave a Reply

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: