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All Things Pelican.
Information and pictures on Pelicans.
Educational, Zoological, and Classification info.

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A pelican is any of several very large water birds with a distinctive pouch under the beak belonging to the bird family Pelecanidae.

Along with the darters, cormorants, gannets, boobies, frigatebirds, and tropicbirds, pelicans make up the order Pelecaniformes. Like other birds in that group, pelicans have all four toes webbed (they are totipalmate). Modern pelicans are found on all continents, except Antarctica. Birds of inland and coastal waters, they are absent from polar regions, the deep ocean, oceanic islands, and inland South America.

Appearance and behaviorPelicans
Pelicans are large birds with enormous, pouched bills and long wings. The smallest of the pelican is the Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis), small individuals of which can be as little as 2.75 kg (6 lbs), 106 cm (42 in) and have a wingspan of 1.83 m (6 ft). The largest pelican species is believed to be the Dalmatian Pelican (Pelecanus crispus), at up to 15 kg (33 lbs), 183 cm (72 in) and a maximum wingspan of nearly 3.5 m (11.5 ft). The Dalmatian Pelican is also the rarest species of pelican, with the most common believed to be the Australian Pelican (though some estimates have placed the White Pelican at a higher population).

Pelicans have two primary ways of feeding:

  • Group fishing: used by white pelicans all over the world. They will form a line to chase schools of small fish into shallow water, and then simply scoop them up. Large fish are caught with the bill-tip, then tossed up in the air to be caught and slid into the gullet head first.
  • Plunge-diving: used almost exclusively by the American Brown Pelican, and rarely by white pelicans like the Peruvian Pelican or the Australian Pelican.

Occasionally, pelicans will consume animals other than fish. In one documented case, a pelican swallowed a live pigeon, and reports of similar incidents have surfaced. In fact, Pelicans are fairly opportunistic predators, and while fish forms the bulk of their diet due to being the most common food source where Pelicans nest, they will quite readily eat any other food that is available to them.

Pelicans are gregarious and nest colonially, the male bringing the material, the female heaping it up to form a simple structure. Pairs are monogamous for a single season but the pair bond extends only to the nesting area; mates are independent away from the nest.

Scientific classification

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Pelecaniformes
Family: Pelecanidae
Rafinesque, 1815
Genus: Pelecanus Linnaeus, 1758

Species

  • Pelecanus occidentalis
  • Pelecanus thagus
  • Pelecanus erythrorhynchos
  • Pelecanus onocrotalus
  • Pelecanus crispus
  • Pelecanus rufescens
  • Pelecanus philippensis
  • Pelecanus conspicillatus

Brown Pelican
PelicansThe Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) is the smallest of the eight species of pelican, although it is a large bird in nearly every other regard. It is 106-137 cm (42-54 in) in length, weighs from 2.75 to 5.5 kg (6-12 lbs) and has a wingspan from 1.83 to 2.5 m (6 to 8.2 ft).
It lives strictly on coasts from Washington and Virginia south to northern Chile and the mouth of the Amazon River. Some immature birds may stray to inland freshwater lakes. After nesting, North American birds move in flocks further north along the coasts, returning to warmer waters for winter.
This bird is distinguished from the American White Pelican by its brown body and its habit of diving for fish from the air, as opposed to co-operative fishing from the surface. It eats mainly herring-like fish. Groups of Brown Pelicans often travel in single file, flying low over the water's surface.
The nest location varies from a simple scrape on the ground on an island to a bulky stick nest in a low tree. These birds nest in colonies, usually on islands.

There are four subspecies:

  • P. o. californicus (California Brown Pelican)
  • P. o. carolinensis (Eastern Brown Pelican)
  • P. o. occidentalis (Caribbean Brown Pelican)

Peruvian Pelican
The Peruvian Pelican, Pelecanus thagus, is a member of the pelican family.
It lives on the west coast of South America, from Lobos de Tierra Island in Peru to Pupuya Islet in Chile.
These birds are dark in color with a white stripe from the top of the bill, up to the crown and down the sides of the neck. They have long tufted feathers on the top of their heads.
The main breeding season occurs from September to March. Clutch size is usually two or three eggs. Eggs are incubated for approximately 4 to 5 weeks, with the rearing period lasting about 3 months.
This bird feeds on several fish species, showing a strong preference for Peruvian Anchovies. It feeds by diving into the water from flight, like its close relative the Brown Pelican. It used to be considered a subspecies of the Brown Pelican.

American White Pelican
PelicansThe American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) is a very large (50"-70") white bird with black wing tips and a long, wide orange bill. They have a wing span of approximately 3 m . They are graceful in flight, moving their wings in slow powerful strokes.
Unlike the Brown Pelican, the American White Pelican does not dive for its food. Instead it practices cooperative fishing. Each bird eats more than 4 pounds of fish a day, mostly carp, chubs, shiners, yellow perch, catfish, and jackfish.
White Pelicans nest in colonies of several hundred pairs on islands in remote brackish and freshwater lakes of inland North America. The most northerly nesting colony can be found on islands in the rapids of the Slave River between Fort Fitzgerald, Alberta and Fort Smith, Northwest Territories. About 10-20% of the population uses Gunnison Island in the Great Salt Lake as a nesting ground. The female lays 2 or 3 eggs in a shallow depression on the ground. Both parents incubate.
They winter in central California and along the Pacific coast of Guatemala; also along the shores of the Gulf of Mexico.

White Pelican
The White Pelican, Pelecanus onocrotalus also known as the Eastern White Pelican or Great White Pelican is a bird in the pelican family. It breeds from southeastern Europe through Asia and in Africa in swamps and shallow lakes. The tree nest is a crude heap of vegetation.
This is a large pelican, at a mass of 10 kg (22 lbs), 160 cm (63 in) long and with a 280 cm (110 inch) wingspan. It differs from the Dalmatian Pelican, the only larger species of pelican, by its pure white, rather than grayish-white, plumage, a bare pink facial patch around the eye and pinkish legs. Immature birds are grey and have dark flight feathers.
More than 50% of White Pelicans breed in the Danube Delta. This pelican migrates short distances, wintering in northeast Africa. In flight, it is an elegant soaring bird, with the head held close to and aligned with the body by a downward bend in the neck.

Dalmatian Pelican
The Dalmatian Pelican (Pelecanus crispus) is a member of the pelican family. It breeds from southeastern Europe through Asia to China in swamps and shallow lakes. The nest is a crude heap of vegetation.
This is the largest of the pelicans, averaging 170 cm (67 inches) in length, 11 kg (24 lbs) in weight and just over 3 m (10 feet) in wingspan. It differs from the White Pelican in that it has curly nape feathers, grey legs and grayish-white (rather than pure white plumage). It has a red lower mandible in the breeding season. Immature young are grey and lack the pink facial patch of immature White Pelicans. The latter also has darker flight feathers.
This pelican migrates short distances. In flight, it is an elegant soaring bird, with the flock moving in synchrony. The neck is then held back like a heron's.
As is well known, pelicans catch fish in their huge bill pouches, most, like this species, while swimming at the surface.

Pink-backed Pelican
The Pink-backed Pelican (Pelecanus rufescens) is a member of the pelican family of birds. It is a resident breeder in Africa, southern Arabia and Madagascar in swamps and shallow lakes. The nest is a large heap of sticks, into which 2-3 large white eggs are laid. The chicks feed by plunging their heads deep into the adultís pouch and taking the partially digested regurgitated fish.
This is a small pelican, but the wingspan is still around 2.4 m (7.9 ft) with an average weight of 5.5 kg (12 lbs). It is much smaller and duller than the Great White Pelican. The plumage is grey and white, with a pink back. The top of the bill is yellow and the pouch is usually grayish. Breeding adults have long feather plumes on the head.
Food is usually fish and amphibians and is usually obtained by fishing in groups.

Spot-billed Pelican
The Spot-billed Pelican (Pelecanus philippensis) is a member of the pelican family. It breeds in southern Asia from India to Indonesia. It is a bird of large inland and coastal waters, especially shallow lakes. The nest is a heap of vegetation in a tree. Three to four eggs is the usual clutch size.
The Spot-billed Pelican is a small pelican, at 125-150 cm (49-60 in) long and a weight of 6 kg (13.2 lbs). It is mainly white, with a grey crest, hind neck and tail. In breeding plumage, there is a pink tone to the rump and under wings. Non-breeders are off-white in these areas, and immature birds are more extensively brown. As the species' name implies, there are grey spots on the pink bill in the breeding season.
The Spot-billed Pelican is sedentary resident with local movements and is distributed more widely in the non-breeding season. Like most other pelicans, it catches fish in its huge bill pouch while swimming at the surface.

Australian Pelican
The Australian Pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus) is a large water bird, widespread on the inland and coastal waters of Australia and New Guinea, also in Fiji, parts of Indonesia and as a vagrant to New Zealand.
Australian Pelicans are medium-sized by pelican standards: 1.6 to 1.8 meters (5.3-6 feet) long with a wingspan of 2.3 to 2.5 meters (7.6-8.3 feet) and weighing 4 to 10 kilograms (8.8-22 pounds). They are predominantly white with black along the primaries of the wings. The pale, pinkish bill is enormous, even by pelican standards, and is the largest bill in the avian world. The record-sized bill was 49 cm (19.5 inches) long.
The species became first known to occur in New Zealand from a specimen shot at Jerusalem in 1890 and small numbers of sub fossil bones, the first found at Lake Grassmere in 1947, followed by records of other stray individuals. The bones were later described as a new (sub) species, Pelecanus (conspicillatus) novaezealandiae (Scarlett, 1966: "New Zealand Pelican") as they appeared to be larger, but Worthy (1998), reviewing new material, determined that they were not separable from the Australian population.

New Zealand Pelican
It has been suggested that this article or section be merged with Australian Pelican.
The New Zealand Pelican is the name given to fossil remains of pelicans found in fossil deposits in New Zealand.
These fossils were first found in 1930, and were initially considered a subspecies (Pelicanus conspicillatus novaezealandidiae) of the Australian Pelican (Pelicanus conspicillatus), based on size differences. It was raised by some taxonomists to a full species in 1981 (Pelicanus novaezealandidiae), however the paucity of pelican remains in an otherwise rich fossil record lead most scientists to conclude that it represents examples of vagrant (lost) Australian Pelicans. It has also been observed that New Zealand lacks the fish diversity and numbers to sustain a large fish-eating water bird. In some migration events Australian Pelicans have been recorded as far away as Fiji, and have been seen in New Zealand.
 

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