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Temporal range: late Eocene-Recent, 36–0Ma
Possible an early origin based on molecular clock
Pelikan Walvis Bay.jpg
A great white pelican in breeding condition flying over Walvis Bay, Namibia.
Scientific classification e
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Pelecaniformes
Family: Pelecanidae
Genus: Pelecanus
Linnaeus, 1758
Type species
Pelecanus onocrotalus
Linnaeus, 1758

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Pelicans (genus Pelecanus) are a genus of large water birds that make up the family Pelecanidae.


Pelicans at National Zoo
Pelicans at National Zoo, Bangladesh

The name comes from the Ancient Greek word pelekan (πελεκάν), which is itself derived from the word pelekys (πέλεκυς) meaning "axe". In classical times, the word was applied to both the pelican and the woodpecker.

The genus Pelecanus was first formally described by Carl Linnaeus in his landmark 1758 10th edition of Systema Naturae. He described the distinguishing characteristics as a straight bill hooked at the tip, linear nostrils, a bare face, and fully webbed feet.

Living species

Living species of Pelecanus
Common and binomial names Image Description Range and status
American white pelican
Pelecanus erythrorhynchos
Gmelin, 1789
American white pelican
Length 1.3–1.8 m (4.3–5.9 ft), wingspan 2.44–2.9 m (8.0–9.5 ft), weight 5–9 kg (10–20 lb). Plumage almost entirely white, except for black primary and secondary remiges only visible in flight. Monotypic. Breeds in inland Canada and United States, wintering in southern United States, Mexico and Central America. Status: least concern.
Brown pelican
Pelecanus occidentalis
Linnaeus, 1766
Brown pelican
Length up to 1.4 m (4.6 ft), wingspan 2–2.3 m (6.6–7.5 ft), weight 3.6–4.5 kg (7.9–9.9 lb). Smallest pelican; distinguished by brown plumage; feeds by plunge-diving. Five subspecies. Coastal distribution ranging from North America and the Caribbean to northern South America and the Galapagos. Status: least concern.
Peruvian pelican
Pelecanus thagus
Molina, 1782
Peruvian pelican
Length up to 1.52 m (5.0 ft), wingspan 2.48 m (8.1 ft), average weight 7 kg (15 lb). Dark with a white stripe from the crown down the sides of the neck. Monotypic. Pacific Coast of South America from Ecuador and Peru south through to southern Chile. Status: near threatened.
Great white pelican
Pelecanus onocrotalus
Linnaeus, 1758
Great white pelican
Length 1.40–1.75 m (4.6–5.7 ft), wingspan 2.45–2.95 m (8.0–9.7 ft), weight 10–11 kg (22–24 lb). Plumage white, with pink facial patch and legs. Monotypic. Patchy distribution from eastern Mediterranean east to Indochina and Malay Peninsula, and south to South Africa. Status: least concern.
Australian pelican
Pelecanus conspicillatus
Temminck, 1824
Australian pelican
Length 1.60–1.90 m (5.2–6.2 ft), wingspan 2.3–2.5 m (7.5–8.2 ft), weight 4–8.2 kg (8.8–18.1 lb). Predominantly white with black along primaries and very large, pale pink bill. Monotypic. Australia and New Guinea; vagrant to New Zealand, Solomons, Bismarck Archipelago, Fiji and Wallacea. Status: least concern.
Pink-backed pelican
Pelecanus rufescens
Gmelin, 1789
Pink-backed pelican
Length 1.25–1.32 m (4.1–4.3 ft), wingspan 2.65–2.9 m (8.7–9.5 ft), weight 3.9–7 kg (8.6–15.4 lb). Grey and white plumage, occasionally pinkish on the back, with a yellow upper mandible and grey pouch. Monotypic. Africa, Seychelles and southwestern Arabia; extinct in Madagascar. Status: least concern.
Dalmatian pelican
Pelecanus crispus
Bruch, 1832
Dalmatian pelican
Length 1.60–1.80 m (5.2–5.9 ft), wingspan 2.70–3.20 m (8.9–10.5 ft), weight 10–12 kg (22–26 lb). Largest pelican; differs from great white pelican in having curly nape feathers, grey legs and greyish-white plumage. Monotypic. South-eastern Europe to India and China. Status: near threatened.
Spot-billed pelican
Pelecanus philippensis
Gmelin, 1789
Spot-billed pelican
Length 1.27–1.52 m (4.2–5.0 ft), wingspan 2.5 m (8.2 ft), weight c. 5 kg (11 lb). Mainly grey-white all over, with a grey hindneck crest in breeding season, pinkish rump and spotted bill pouch. Monotypic. Southern Asia from southern Pakistan across India east to Indonesia; extinct in the Philippines and possibly eastern China. Status: near threatened.


A brown pelican opening mouth and inflating air sac to display tongue and some inner bill anatomy
Pelecanus erythrorhynchos -Tulsa Zoo, Oklahoma, USA-8c
American white pelican with knob which develops on bill before the breeding season
Pelecanus occidentalis -Smith Island, Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, USA -nest-8cr
An adult brown pelican with a chick in a nest in Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, US: This species will nest on the ground when no suitable trees are available.
Australian Pelican showing large pouch
Australian pelican displaying the extent of its throat pouch (Lakes Entrance, Victoria).

Pelicans are very large birds with very long bills. The have a huge gular pouch attached to the lower mandible. The pouh functions as a basket for catching fish, and sometimes rainwater. They have a long neck and short stout legs with large, fully webbed feet. Although they are among the heaviest of flying birds, they are relatively light for their apparent bulk because of air pockets (air sacs) in the skeleton and beneath the skin, enabling them to float high in the water. The pelicans have a network of air sacs under their skin situated across the throat, breast, and undersides of the wings, as well as in their bones. The pelican can keep its air sacs inflated by closing its glottis. The air sacs serve to keep the pelican remarkably buoyant in the water and may also cushion the impact of the pelican's body on the water surface when they dive from flight into water to catch fish.

The tail is short and square. The wings are long and broad, suitably shaped for soaring and gliding flight, and have the unusually large number of 30 to 35 secondary flight feathers.

Males are generally larger than females and have longer bills.

Pelicans have mainly light-coloured plumage, the exceptions being the brown and Peruvian pelicans. The plumage of immature pelicans is darker than that of adults. Newly hatched chicks are naked and pink, darkening to grey or black after 4 to 14 days, then developing a covering of white or grey down.


The eight living pelican species have a patchy global distribution, ranging latitudinally from the tropics to the temperate zone, though they are absent from interior South America and from polar regions and the open ocean.


Pelicans frequent inland and coastal waters, where they feed principally on fish, catching them at or near the water surface.


Australian pelican in flight
An Australian pelican gliding with its large wings extended

They are gregarious birds, travelling in flocks, hunting cooperatively, and breeding colonially. Four white-plumaged species tend to nest on the ground, and four brown or grey-plumaged species nest mainly in trees.

Pelicans swim well with their strong legs and their webbed feet. They rub the backs of their heads on their preen glands to pick up an oily secretion, which they transfer to their plumage to waterproof it. Holding their wings only loosely against their bodies, pelicans float with relatively little of their bodies below the water surface.

Adult pelicans rely on visual displays and behaviour to communicate, particularly using their wings and bills. To threaten an opponent, they thrust and snap with their bills, or lift and wave their wings. Adult pelicans grunt when at the colony, but are generally silent elsewhere or outside breeding season. Conversely, colonies are noisy, as chicks vocalise extensively.

Breeding and lifespan

A spot-billed pelican nesting colony at Uppalapadu, India: This species builds nests in trees.
A spot-billed pelican feeding a juvenile in a nest in a tree at Garapadu, India
A nesting colony of Australian pelicans on the coast of New South Wales, Australia: This species nests on the ground.
Pelicans at Dauphin Island, Alabama, United States

Pelicans are monogamous for a single season. To mate, pelicans need a nest. The male brings the nesting material, in ground-nesting species (which may not build a nest) sometimes in the pouch, and in tree-nesting species crosswise in the bill. The female then heaps the material up to form a simple structure.

The eggs are oval, white, and coarsely textured. All species normally lay at least two eggs; the usual clutch size is one to three, rarely up to six. Both sexes incubate in shifts with the eggs on top of or below the feet. Incubation takes 30–36 days; hatching success for undisturbed pairs can be as high as 95%, but because of sibling competition or siblicide, in the wild, usually all but one nestling dies within the first few weeks.

Both parents feed their young. Small chicks are fed by regurgitation; after about a week, they are able to put their heads into their parents' pouches and feed themselves. Sometimes before, but especially after being fed the pelican chick may seem to "throw a tantrum" by loudly vocalizing and dragging itself around in a circle by one wing and leg, striking its head on the ground or anything nearby and the tantrums sometimes end in what looks like a seizure that results in the chick falling briefly unconscious; the reason is not clearly known, but a common belief is that it is to draw attention to itself and away from any siblings who are waiting to be fed.

Parents of ground-nesting species sometimes drag older young around roughly by the head before feeding them. From about 25 days old, the young of these species gather in "pods" or "crèches" of up to 100 birds in which parents recognise and feed only their own offspring. By 6–8 weeks they wander around, occasionally swimming, and may practise communal feeding. Young of all species fledge 10–12 weeks after hatching. They may remain with their parents afterwards, but are now seldom or never fed. They are mature at three or four years old.

Diet and feeding

The diet of pelicans usually consists of fish, but occasionally amphibians, turtles, crustaceans, insects, birds, and mammals are also eaten.

In deep water, white pelicans often fish alone. Nearer the shore, several encircle schools of small fish or form a line to drive them into the shallows, beating their wings on the water surface and then scooping up the prey. Although all pelican species may feed in groups or alone, the Dalmatian, pink-backed, and spot-billed pelicans are the only ones to prefer solitary feeding. When fishing in groups, all pelican species have been known to work together to catch their prey, and Dalmatian pelicans may even cooperate with great cormorants.

Large fish are caught with the bill-tip, then tossed up in the air to be caught and slid into the gullet head-first. A gull will sometimes stand on the pelican's head, peck it to distraction, and grab a fish from the open bill. Pelicans in their turn sometimes snatch prey from other waterbirds.

Pelicans may also eat birds. In southern Africa, eggs and chicks of the Cape cormorant are an important food source for great white pelicans. Several other bird species have been recorded in the diet of this pelican in South Africa, including Cape gannet chicks on Malgas Island as well as crowned cormorants, kelp gulls, greater crested terns, and African penguins on Dassen Island and elsewhere. The Australian pelican has been recorded feeding on young Australian white ibis, and young and adult grey teals and silver gulls. Brown pelicans have been reported preying on young common murres in California and the eggs and nestlings of cattle egrets and nestling great egrets in Baja California, Mexico. Peruvian pelicans in Chile have been recorded feeding on nestlings of imperial shags, juvenile Peruvian diving petrels, and grey gulls.

Relations to humans

The relationship between pelicans and people has often been contentious. The birds have been persecuted because of their perceived competition with commercial and recreational fishing. Pelicans have been persecuted by humans for their perceived competition for fish, despite the fact that their diet overlaps little with fish caught by people.

Apart from habitat destruction and deliberate, targeted persecution, pelicans are vulnerable to disturbance at their breeding colonies by birdwatchers, photographers, and other curious visitors. Human presence alone can cause the birds to accidentally displace or destroy their eggs, leave hatchlings exposed to predators and adverse weather, or even abandon their colonies completely.

Group of pelicans in captivity covered with oil
Brown pelicans, covered with oil, after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010
People washing oiled brown pelican
Oiled brown pelican being washed at a rescue center in Fort Jackson, 2010

As waterbirds that feed on fish, pelicans are affected by oil spills, both directly by being oiled and by the impact on their food resources. A 2007 report to the California Fish and Game Commission estimated that during the previous 20 years, some 500–1000 brown pelicans had been affected by oil spills in California. A 2011 report by the Center for Biological Diversity, a year after the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, said that 932 brown pelicans had been collected after being affected by oiling and estimated that 10 times that number had been harmed as a result of the spill.

Where pelicans interact with fishers, through either sharing the same waters or scavenging for fishing refuse, they are especially vulnerable to being hooked and entangled in both active and discarded fishing lines. Fish hooks are swallowed or catch in the skin of the pouch or webbed feet, and strong monofilament fishing line can become wound around bill, wings, or legs, resulting in crippling, starvation, and often death. Local rescue organisations have been established in North America and Australia by volunteers to treat and rehabilitate injured pelicans and other wildlife.

Threats and conservation

(Pelecanus occidentalis) Tortuga Bay on the Island of Santa Cruz, Galápagos
Pelecanus occidentalis, Tortuga Bay, Island of Santa Cruz, Galápagos

The populations of pelicans have fallen through habitat destruction, disturbance, and environmental pollution, and three species are of conservation concern. The Peruvian pelican, the spot-billed pelican, and the Dalmatian pelican are listed as near threatened.

Pelecanus onocrotalus -Kenya -several-8
Great white pelicans loafing in Kenya

Population estimate:

  • The combined population of brown and Peruvian pelicans is estimated at 650,000 birds;
  • The National Audubon Society estimates the global population of the brown pelican at 300,000;
  • The spot-billed pelican has an estimated population between 13,000 and 18,000;
  • The American white pelican has increased in numbers, with its population estimated at over 157,000 birds in 2005;
  • The Australian pelican has a population generally estimated at between 300,000 and 500,000 individuals.

In culture

Breeding pelicans. Wall fragment from the Sun Temple of Nyuserre Ini at Abu Gurob, Egypt. c. 2430 BCE. Neues Museum, Berlin
Breeding pelicans. Wall fragment from the Sun Temple of Nyuserre Ini at Abu Gurob, Egypt. c. 2430 BCE. Neues Museum, Berlin

Pelicans have a long history of cultural significance in mythology, and in Christian and heraldic iconography.

Ancient Egypt

The pelican (henet in Egyptian) was associated in Ancient Egypt with death and the afterlife. It was depicted in art on the walls of tombs, and figured in funerary texts, as a protective symbol against snakes. Henet was also referred to in the Pyramid Texts as the "mother of the king" and thus seen as a goddess. The pelican was believed to possess the ability to prophesy safe passage in the underworld for someone who had died.


An origin myth from the Murri people of Queensland, cited by Andrew Lang, describes how the Australian pelican got its black and white plumage. The pelican, formerly a black bird, made a canoe during a flood to save drowning people. He fell in love with a woman he saved, but her friends and she tricked him and escaped. The pelican consequently prepared to go to war against them by daubing himself with white clay as war paint. However, before he had finished, another pelican, on seeing such a strange piebald creature, killed him with its beak, and all such pelicans have been black and white ever since.


The Physiologus, a didactic Christian text from the 3rd or 4th century, claims that pelicans kill their young when they grow and strike their parents in the face, but then the mother laments them for three days, after which she strikes her side and brings them back to life with her blood. This the Physiologus explains as mirroring the pain inflicted on God by people's idolatry, and the self-sacrifice of Jesus on the cross redeeming the sinful. This text was widely copied, translated, and sometimes closely paraphrased during the Middle Ages.

In a newer, also medieval version of the European myth, the pelican was thought to be particularly attentive to her young, to the point of providing them with blood by wounding her own breast when no other food was available. As a result, the pelican came to symbolise the Passion of Jesus and the Eucharist, supplementing the image of the lamb and the flag. Christ was decribed as the loving divine pelican, one drop of whose blood can save the world.

Elizabeth I of England adopted the symbol, portraying herself as the "mother of the Church of England". The Pelican Portrait of her was painted around 1573, probably by Nicholas Hilliard.

Origin in nature

The legends of self-wounding and the provision of blood may have arisen because of the impression a pelican sometimes gives that it is stabbing itself with its bill. In reality, it often presses this onto its chest to fully empty the pouch. Another possible derivation is the tendency of the bird to rest with its bill on its breast; the Dalmatian pelican has a blood-red pouch in the early breeding season and this may have contributed to the myth.


Coa Hungary Family Kiszely - Benedekfalva
The arms of the Kiszely family of Benedekfalva depict a "pelican in her piety" both in the crest and shield.

Pelicans have featured extensively in heraldry, generally using the Christian symbolism of the pelican as a caring and self-sacrificing parent.

The King of Portugal John II adopted the pelican as his own personal sygil while he was Infante.

The image became linked to the medieval religious feast of Corpus Christi. The universities of Oxford and Cambridge each have colleges named for the religious festival nearest the dates of their establishment, and both Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and Corpus Christi College, Oxford, feature pelicans on their coats of arms.

The medical faculties of Charles University in Prague also have a pelican as their emblem. The symbol of the Irish Blood Transfusion Service is a pelican, and for most of its existence the headquarters of the service was located at Pelican House in Dublin, Ireland. The heraldic pelican also ended up as a pub name and image, though sometimes with the image of the ship Golden Hind.

Modern usage

The pelican is the subject of a popular limerick originally composed by Dixon Lanier Merritt in 1910 with several variations by other authors. The original version ran:

A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His bill will hold more than his belican,
He can take in his beak
Food enough for a week,
But I'm damned if I see how the helican.

Interesting facts about pelicans

  • Pelicans are now known to be most closely related to the shoebill and hamerkop.
  • The family Pelecanidae was introduced (as Pelicanea) by the French polymath Constantine Samuel Rafinesque in 1815.
  • Fossil evidence of pelicans dates back at least 36 million years.
  • The bills, pouches, and bare facial skin of all pelicans become brightly coloured before the breeding season.
  • The throat pouch of the Californian subspecies of the brown pelican turns bright red, and fades to yellow after the eggs are laid, while the throat pouch of the Peruvian pelican turns blue.
  • The American white pelican grows a prominent knob on its bill that is shed once females have laid eggs.
  • The smallest species is the brown pelican, small individuals of which can be no more than 2.75 kg (6.1 lb) and 1.06 m (3.5 ft) long, with a wingspan of as little as 1.83 m (6.0 ft).
  • The largest is believed to be the Dalmatian, at up to 15 kg (33 lb) and 1.83 m (6.0 ft) in length, with a maximum wingspan of 3 m (9.8 ft).
  • The Australian pelican's bill may grow up to 0.5 m (1.6 ft) long in large males, the longest of any bird.
  • Modern pelicans are found on all continents except Antarctica.
  • Pelicans live for 15 to 25 years in the wild, although one reached an age of 54 years in captivity.
  • The great white pelican is the national bird of Romania.
  • Consumption of pelican, as with other seabirds, is considered not kosher as an unclean animal, and thus forbidden in Jewish dietary law.
  • Alcatraz Island was given its name by the Spanish because of the large numbers of brown pelicans nesting present. The word alcatraz is itself derived from the Arabic al-caduos, a term used for a water-carrying vessel and likened to the pouch of the pelican. The English name albatross is also derived by corruption of the Spanish word.
  • The Moche people of ancient Peru often depicted pelicans in their art.
  • Sir Francis Drake's famous ship was initially called Pelican, and adorned the British halfpenny coin.

Images for kids

See also

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