Pelican: Description, Types, Species, and Habitat


Have you ever come across a bird with a long beak and a bowl-like lower beak near water bodies probably hunting for food, then that definitely a Pelican.

You can easily identify a particular species of Pelican by its remarkable features. Pelicans are unique water birds with up to eight different species that belong to the family of Pelecanidae.

They are peculiar for their long beaks and large throat pouch, which is very elastic. Their throat pouch is used for catching prey and draining water from contents before swallowing.

Once the prey is caught, they use their elastic pouch muscle to hold down the caught prey until swallowed.

They also use their pouches for fanning and cooling themselves when hot. Their pouches are not used for storage, as this was the notion had in the past.

The Brown Pelican dives from up into the water while the rest of the species hunt while swimming as they use their pouches to scoop up a school of smaller fishes.

They are known to have strong webbed feet with which they swim. They also incubate their eggs with the skin of their feet.

Scientific Classification

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Aves
  • Order: Pelecaniformes
  • Family: Pelecanidae
  • Genus: Pelecanus

Type Species: Pelecanus Onocrotalus

It is good to note that each species has its own peculiarities and thereby gaining them their different scientific names.

The males and females have great similarities, but what makes them distinct is that the males are larger in size than the females.

Adult Pelicans during the nesting season go out to hunt for prey for themselves and their offspring. These birds are known to feed while hunting.  Once the adults are well fed, they catch some fish for their young ones and bring them to their nest.

They are known to breed in colonies, hunt in groups, and migrate in flocks. Despite all these uniqueness, pelicans are enlisted as endangered species due to natural disasters, environmental pollution, human persecution, and other man pioneered activities.

In the absence of the dangers, the lifespan of pelicans ranges from 15 years to 25 years. Healthy pelicans have a susceptible amount of lice that they naturally live with.

But when ill, these lice multiply in their numbers and cause the Pelican in question to die quickly. Of course, as birds, they suffer from quite a number of bird diseases like bird flu.

Sometimes, these diseases are man-made like the weakening of Pelican eggs by pesticides purposely sprayed by man to get rid of the eggs.

They apply this method when they feel Pelicans are eating too many fishes and need to reduce their population.

SPECIES: Characteristics, Habitat, Diet, and Migrations

1. American White Pelican

The American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) can be found in the interior region of North America and migrates to the warmer climate regions of Central and South America in the winter season.

They are known to be large, as the adult bird size ranges from about 130cm to 180cm. It can be distinguished from other species of pelicans by their;

  • Bright white plumage
  • Black remiges
  • Pale distinct yellow on the breast
  • Bright orange Iris and bill color in the breeding season.

Their prey, mostly fishes, are caught while swimming, and they often hunt in groups. They are sometimes known to steal caught by other birds. This is known as KLEPTOPARASITISM.

They practice colonial breeding and have their nesting period from March till early June.

2. Brown Pelican

Brown Pelican (Pelecanus Occidentalis) is known to be the smallest of the Pelican species and is among the three Pelican species that habit in America.

They breed in the Western and Southern regions of the United States.

Their length ranges from 1m to 1.5m.

They are known to have the following features:

  • White plumage on the head and neck with pale yellow crown.
  • Their legs are black
  • Their tail, rump, and back are dark brown and gray-streaked.
  • Their large bill has intricate color patterns.

They not only feed on fish, although being their main food source, but they also feed on amphibians (frogs) and crustaceans (crabs). It is the only Pelican specie known for hunting by diving for prey. Others do their hunting in groups while swimming.

3. Peruvian Pelican

Peruvian Pelican (Pelecanus thagus) basically lives on the West coast of South America. They have similar features like the Brown Pelican, and they have dark plumage.

They have a white patch that runs from its bill up to their Crest, and then the patch descends on both sides of their neck. The size of the Pelican is from 4.5ft to 5ft. Their breeding season is from September to March.

4. Great White Pelican AKA Rosy Pelican, White Pelican

Great White Pelican (Pelecanus onocroatus) is normally found in shallow lakes and swampy habitats of Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe. Its Wingspan ranges from 226cm to 360cm. The length of these birds ranges from 140cm to 180cm.

Other features that distinguish them from other species of pelicans are

  • They have pure white plumage as adults.
  • They have pink legs
  • They possess slightly pinkish or orange-like skin around their eyes.
  • Their Bills stand out for its bright colors.

They feed primarily on fish but can also feed on smaller birds, tadpoles, turtles, etc. to avoid starvation.

5. Australian Pelican

Australian Pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus) as the name above implies mostly found in Australia but can also be found in Fiji, The Island of New Guinea, and some parts of Indonesia. They love to wander around inland and coastal waters.

Their primary diet is fish, but they can substitute with smaller birds and junks.

They are widely known for their long pink bill, which happens to be the longest of all Aves(birds). The length of the bill is estimated to reach 50cm. Though the longest known at the moment is 43cm.

Their plumage is basically white, and their wings are black in color.

6. Pink Backed Pelican

The pink Backed Pelican (Pelecanus rufescens) had habitats in Africa, Southern Arabia, and Southern India. It is one of the smallest Pelican species with length ranging from 125cm to 155cm.

Some distinct features are as follows:

  • They have gray to white plumage
  • Their bill is yellow while their pouch is gray.

In the breeding season, on the head of the adults are long feather plumes.

They are found to inhabit places of aquatic regions such as swamps, lakes, floodplains, etc. Their primary diet is fish and amphibians (frog). They breed in colonies on trees or shrubs or Reed beds.

7. Dalmatian Pelican

Dalmatian Pelican (Pelecanus crispus) is well known for being the largest freshwater bird in the whole world. They have elegant flights and harmonizes perfectly during their flight as a flock.

They are located in various places ranging from Southeastern Europe to Russia and China and Southern India. They live in swamps and shallow lakes. They have the following features:

  • They possess silvery-white plumage
  • They have Gray legs
  • They have Wave like nape feathers.

When not breeding, they can be mistaken for great White Pelicans. Fish is their main source of food.

8. Spot-billed Pelican AKA Gray Pelican

Spot-billed Pelican (Pelecanus Philipensis) are commonly found in parts of South Asia and Southeastern Asia. The length is between 125cm to 152cm. They are known to have the following features:

  • White plumage
  • Brown tail
  • Gray Crest
  • Gray hind neck.

From their name fore mentioned, their bill spotted their pouch could be pink or purple with large spots.

The pelican prefers to live in shallow, lowland freshwater. They form their nest in colonies on low trees. Their primary food source is fish. We hope that this article has been of help to you.

If it has, kindly shares your thoughts with us by leaving a comment in the comments section below. We look forward to hearing from you.

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