El pelican (Pelecanus) is a genus of pelecaniform waterfowl. They are characterized by having an elongated beak that has a large gular sac that is used to capture their prey and drain water before swallowing them.

It is found all over the world, near water and densely populated fishing grounds.

Brown pelican

Brown pelican


There are eight different species of pelicans:

  • American white pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos)
  • Brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis)
  • Peruvian pelican (Pelecanus thagus)
  • Common pelican (Pelecanus onocrotalus)
  • Australian pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus)
  • Pink pelican (Pelecanus rufescens)
  • Frowning pelican (Pelecanus crispus)
  • Eastern pelican (Pelecanus philippensis)


The pelican is a huge bird with some species reaching a wingspan of more than 3 meters. Males are usually larger than females and their beaks are longer as well. The smallest species is the brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) whose specimens do not weigh more than 2,75 kg and are 1 m in length, with a wingspan of only 1,83 cm. The largest is thought to be the frowning pelican (Pelecanus crispus) weighing up to 15 kg and measuring 1,83 m in length, with a maximum wingspan of 3 m. The beak of the Australian pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus) is the largest of its species, measuring up to 0,5 m in males and being the longest of any bird. Smaller species choose to live on land rather than spend their life in the sea.

They have long beaks characterized by a downward curved hook located at the end of the upper jaw and by the attachment of a huge gular bag in the lower part of the beak. This bursa is made up of a thin mandibular branch of the lower beak and flexible muscles of the tongue. It is used to catch fish and, sometimes, rainwater. Although, in order not to prevent the swallowing of large fish, the tongue itself is tiny.

The neck is long and the legs are short but stocky with large, fully webbed feet. Although they are one of the heaviest birds, they are actually quite light due to the pockets of air found on their skeleton and between their skin, which allow them to float on top of the water. The tail is short and square.

The wings are long and wide with a shape suitable for high altitude flight and for gliding (flying without the need to move the wings). They have a large number of 30 - 35 secondary flight feathers.

The plumage is mainly light in color, with the exception of the brown pelicans and peruvian pelican. In all species the beaks, bags and bare skin of the rest become brighter during the breeding season. Especially in brown pelicans where the bag is stained bright red and to be yellow after egg laying, while that of the Peruvian pelican turns blue.


They gather in large flocks of more than 100 birds. In these communities they rest and nest, but normally they hunt and feed alone except for the females that hunt their young together.

Chicks usually gather in small groups within the common nesting site.

Pelicans flying over the water

Pelicans flying over the water


The pelican prefers temperate and warm temperatures to colder ones, which is why pelicans are concentrated closer to the Earth's equator.


The eight species of pelicans are distributed throughout the planet, with the exception of Antarctica. Although their breeding ranges extend to latitudes of 45 ° South (Australian pelicans in Tasmania) and 60 ° North (American white pelicans in western Canada).


The pelican is an omnivorous animal, but prefers to feed on crustacean fish such as shrimp and crabs, small species of turtles and squid. The size of the preferred prey varies depending on the pelican species and its location. To hunt they use the bag from their beak, submerging it in the water and then discarding the excess water and keeping only the fish.


The pelican has few predators due to its large size. The main predators are coyotes, cats and humans who hunt them for their meat and feathers.


The pelican during the breeding stage nest in colonies and begins with a group of males chasing a female. This courtship can occur on land, water, or air. The male collects the materials for the nest, while she builds it on the ground or in a tree depending on the species.

The female lays an average of 2 eggs, where both parents collaborate to incubate them. After being incubated for a month, the eggs will hatch but usually only one of the two will survive. They will be fed until 3 months of age, although at 2 months of age they are already able to walk and swim.

Newly hatched chicks are naked and pink, darkening to gray or black after 4 to 14 days, and then develop a coat of white or gray down.

State of conservation

The pelican is negatively affected, globally, by declining fish supply due to overfishing or water pollution, habitat destruction, direct effects of human activity such as disturbances in nesting colonies, hunting and slaughter, entanglement in fishing lines and hooks, and the presence of contaminants such as DDT and endrin.

All species are stable, although three of them are classified by the IUCN as species at risk. Most of the species reproduce easily in zoos, therefore, which is very useful for their conservation.

Popular culture

The pelican in ancient Egypt was related to death and life beyond. They were depicted on tomb walls and figured in funerary texts as a symbol to protect themselves from snakes. In other unofficial funeral papyri it is said that the pelican was believed to have the power to prophesy a safe passage into the afterlife.

In Jewish dietary law, consuming pelican meat is totally forbidden as it is considered an unclean animal. Contrary to the Jews, in the ancient Peruvian town of Moche, pelicans were represented in their art, as they worshiped nature and all its living beings.

The famous island of Alcatraz owes its name to the pelicans that inhabit it in the reproductive season, which derives from the Arabic al-caduos that is used to designate the vessels that carry water, as pelicans do with their bags. It received the name of the Spanish.

In medieval Europe, there was a belief that the pelican paid so much attention to raising its young that it was able to provide its own blood, hurting itself in the chest when it did not find food available. The result of this belief we can appreciate as a symbol in the Passion of Jesus and the Eucharist and it came to usurp the image of the lamb and the flag.

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