Published: May 1, 2011

    Pelicans Around the World

    Pelicans have wingspans of almost 10 feet and beaks that can reach a record 19.5 inches long. It’s no surprise we’re captivated by these majestic birds. With pelican fossils dating over 30 million years, these extraordinary creatures have the adaptability and determined nature to survive.

    Brown Pelican

    U.S. Fish and Wildlife

    Brown Pelican

    With a wingspan of 42-54 inches and a body weighing 6-12 pounds, the Brown Pelican is not what you’d call a small bird. However, it is the smallest of the pelican family. Like many of their fellow species of Pelican, they live in co-ed flocks and fly in a familiar V formation.

    The Brown Pelican is found mainly on beaches and marinas. Its native habitat includes the greater part of the eastern seaboard of the U.S. and the lower U.S. Pacific coast all the way down through to South America. The Gulf States also enjoy the company of these birds, Louisiana in particular. The state has adopted the Brown Pelican as its state bird and two major universities in the state (Tulane and Louisiana State University) have included the bird on their official seal.

    The Brown Pelican is unusual in the fact that it soars above the water and swoops down into the water to fish. And if that doesn’t seem difficult enough, the pelican has competition even once it has caught the fish. It must fight off seagulls, which have been known to try and steal the fish right out of his pouch.

    Just last year the Brown Pelican was removed from the endangered species list after a bout with the toxic chemical DDT in the 50’s and 60’s.

    American White Pelican

    © Stewart Warren

    American White Pelican

    With its duck-like appearance and dog-like bark, the American White Pelican delights the inhabitants of the American Pacific Coast.This social creature is found in large colonies near freshwater lakes and rivers and saltwater bays, beaches, and marshes.

    Because of American White Pelicans’ societal preference, they fish together. They organize in groups and float along the water, scooping up fish as they go.

    The wooing and mating ritual of these birds is evident in one physical attribute. During mating season, the male develops a fibrous plate on the top end of his great orange beak. These pelicans usually nest on an island or inland lake where 2-4 eggs are laid. Both males and females care for their young. When the babies reach 10-12 weeks of age, they independently fly off to join a new colony.

    Because they have vertebrae in their neck, these birds cannot raise their heads like other pelicans. So even though they can’t look you in the eye, you can still enjoy looking at them in their native habit and in zoos across the world.

    Australian Pelican

    © Australian Museum

    Australian Pelican

    This elegant bird has the longest beak of any bird in the whole world! But its enormous beak comes in handy when feeding; the pouch expands 18.5 inches and can hold up over 3 gallons of water.

    Australian Pelicans prefer the large areas of open waters of Australia, New Guinea, Fiji, and New Zealand where the locals lovingly refer to them as Goolayyalibees.

    During mating season, the female pelican is treated to an aquatic dance performed by the competing males. Immediately upon selecting her suitor, the two go off to their nest. The female usually lays 1-3 eggs which are cared for by both parents. But after three months of feeding and flying lessons, the young birds leave the nest and join others in a large group called a crèche.

    The Australian Pelican is an impressive creature both at a calming rest and in dramatic flight.

    Dalmatian Pelican

    © Marion Schneider & Christoph Aistleitner

    Dalmation Pelican

    Quite opposite from the Brown Pelican who has to fight off fish thieves, the Dalmatian Pelican is content with the laid-back practice of letting others do the work. Cormorants, who coexist with the pelicans in the Prespa Lakes of Greece, often lend a helping hand when fishing.

    The cormorants dive into the water for their prey, causing the other fish to surface. Then the opportunistic Dalmatian Pelican plunges in for the easy catch. Fishing in the other areas of its territory takes place both alone and in a group. These birds, the largest of the pelican family, can be found in isolated areas across Europe, Asia, and China.

    Despite the fact it sounds like they live all over Eurasia, these birds are classified as vulnerable by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) in their Red List of Endangered Species. However, new conservation efforts have shown success across Europe and Asia. They are now protected by an act put in place in 1996, which protects them from hunting and saves their natural habitat. With all this progress, The Dalmatian Pelican can look forward to a safe existence where their land and food are plentiful.

    Eastern White Pelican

    © Hamed Saber

    Eastern White Pelican

    This 2nd largest of species of pelican earns its alternate title of Great White Pelican. The Eastern White Pelican is a special breed that commands attention by its large body and vibrant colors displayed during breeding. The males carry a soft pink color on their face and eyes and the females showcase a bright yellow around the eye that matches the beak. During non-mating season, they closely resemble the Dalmatian Pelican in size and color. The difference is the Eastern White Pelican is slightly smaller and boasts a pure white appearance to the grayish coloring of the Dalmatian Pelican.

    If you’d like to see these regal creatures in their natural surroundings, you would have to travel to the Danube Delta in Romania where more than 50% of them breed. However, they are not just regal in looks; in 1664 they were given to the English King, Charles II, as a gift. To this day, descendants of those birds live in St. James Park in London.

    More consistent with their natural habitats, they can also be found in areas of Southern Europe and Central Asia. In winter, they migrate to the northeast coast of Africa.

    Peruvian Pelican

    © Javier Ormeno Rojas

    Peruvian Pelican

    The natural habitat of the Peruvian Pelican extends down the coast of South American from Peru to Chile. They used to be considered a sub-species of the Brown Pelican because of their many similarities in hunting and appearance. They employ the same method of fishing; they soar above the water, abruptly diving in after spotting their prey.

    The Peruvian Pelican is dark in color and has the look of white dots or stripes on its back and wings as well as a long white stripe down its beak.

    Males and females gear up for the breeding season in September. The season runs through March. The birds are doing their part to ensure growth of the population, which was diminished because of El Nino in 1998.

    Pink-Backed Pelican

    Public Domain

    Pink-Backed Pelican

    While their bodies maintain a grayish hue, the backs take on a soft pink in appearance. The wingspan of about 8 feet makes them one of smallest of the pelicans, but certainly not to be considered a small bird.

    The Pink-Backed Pelican prefers fresh water habitats of Africa and southern Arabia. These creatures hunt in groups much like the American White Pelican.

    You’d rather have this species of pelican for a neighbor as they are said to be one of the quietest. They rarely make any sounds except a few grunting and hissing noises. Their young, however, are a bit more boisterous, and make it known when they are hungry. Much like the others in the pelican family, their diet consists of mainly fish. They have been known to dine on certain amphibians and small birds as well.

    Spot-Billed Pelican


    Spot-Billed Pelican

    The Spot-Billed Pelican resembles a small bird we would see in our neighborhoods, but only in the fact that it builds its nest exclusively in trees. That is where the similarities end. Even as one of the smallest pelicans, it weighs 9-13 pounds and has a wingspan of 49–60 inches! Its coloring is similar to that of a Dalmatian Pelican. It is predominantly white with a gray chest and its pink beak is speckled with pale spots.

    Native to India, Sri Lanka and Cambodia, the Spot-Billed Pelican is not picky in regards to its surroundings. They can be found in a wide range of environments. Waters can be fresh or salt and the adjacent land can be rich in trees and vegetation or open. Unfortunately there is not much known about what these birds prefer to eat. One would assume its diet is similar to that of other pelicans, comprised of mostly fish.

    Like the Sea Turtle, the Spot-Billed Pelican returns each year to the same place to construct their nests. Breeding season begins in September, with 2-3 eggs being laid in October through November. After about three months of jointly caring for their young, the adult pelicans are free of their duties until the next mating season.