Australian pelicans ~ largest flying bird

Australian pelicans (Pelecanus conspicillatus) are waterbirds. Their habitat is very close to wetlands, waterways, lagoons, swamps, rivers, lakes and coastlines throughout Australia in both fresh and salt water. They are very sociable living in large colonies of up to 40,000 birds. These beautiful birds are one of the largest flying birds in the world.

Wingspan up to 2.5 metres
Wingspan up to 2.5 metres

Australian Pelicans are mostly white with black tips on their wings and tail. They have a streak of grey feathers behind their head to halfway down their neck. Eyes are brown and yellow. Their bill and gular (bill pouch) are pink and they have the longest bill any bird in the world which is 40 – 50 cm long. This bill are very sensitive which assists in locating fish in muddy waters. The little hook at the end of their upper bill assists in grasping on to slippery food.

successful fishing experience
Successful fishing experience

Once food is caught the pelican will manoeuvre its bill to ensure its food slides down its throat, usually headfirst. The gular functions as a ‘net’ to capture food and water. Their legs and feet are blue grey and have 4 webbed toes.

Pelican preening
Pelican preening

Pelicans are ‘flighty’, in that, they are always searching for suitable wet areas with a constant food supply.  Despite being large birds, their bony skeleton is very light only weighing around 10% of their body weight. This allows them to remain in the air for up to 24 hours at a time mainly soaring and gliding in the thermals to conserve energy.  

soaring Galapagos pelican
Soaring Galapagos pelican

They are found throughout Australia, Papua New Guinea, western Indonesia or New Zealand. It is estimated that there are around 300,000 – 500,000 individuals in Australia.

pelican portrait
Pelican portrait

A very interesting fact about pelicans is that one never sees pelican nests or young pelicans, this is due to pelicans choosing to nest in large breeding colonies in very remote inland areas.

Pelican facts
  • Weight: 4 – 7 kg
  • Length: 1.5 – 2 metres 
  • Wingspan: 2.3 – 2.5 metres 
  • Lifespan: 15 – 25 years in the wild
  • Flight: 56km/h up to 3000 metres elevation on thermal currents. 

Main diet is fish but they will resort to crustaceans, frogs, tadpoles, insects, reptiles, amphibians and other small sea food options. They are often found at popular fishing spots waiting for scraps from local fishermen. Pelicans have been known to eat small birds and seagulls and ducklings.

Pelican feeding frenzy
Pelican feeding frenzy

Australian pelicans live in large colonies and breed anytime of the year, but are dependent on safety aspects, such as weather, water and seclusion for their nests. A female will usually lay 1-3 eggs in their nest, incubation period is around 35 days.  Both parents will take turns to incubate their eggs. Hatchlings are born helpless, blind and featherless. They are fed by their parents who put regurgitated food down their bills. It takes around one month for chicks to be able to leave their nest to form creches of around 100 birds, where they remain for around two months when they learn to fly and begin their independence. They are fully mature after 3 years. 

Conservation Status – applies to all species of pelicans

All human mediated

  • Hunting
  • Poisoning from insecticides
  • Fishing nets and hooks
  • Shrinking habitats
  • Artificially feeding by humans has caused pelicans to lose interest in hunting
  • Pollution – industrial, rubbish, oil spills, chemicals deposited in waterways


American white pelican 

Habitat: North America, during winter will migrate to the warmer areas of Central and South America. 

Brown pelican 

Habitat: southern and western coastal areas in USA. Smallest of the pelican species.

Brown pelican with an American white pelican  in the wetlands of California
Brown pelican with an American white pelican in the wetlands of California
Peruvian pelican

Habitat: West coast of South America. These pelicans have been listed as ‘Near Threatened” (IUCN Red List of Endangered Species).

Great white pelican

Habitat: Found widespread in parts of Asia, Africa and south eastern Europe. 

Great white pelican, Ethiopia
Great white pelican, Ethiopia
Pink-backed pelican

Habitat: Africa, southern India and southern Arabia. One of the smallest species of pelican. 

Dalmatian pelican

Habitat: stretches from south-eastern Europe to Russia and China to the Indian subcontinent. It is the largest freshwater bird in the world.  These pelicans have been listed as ‘Vulnerable” (IUCN Red List of Endangered Species).

Spot-billed pelican

Habitat: South east Asia.  These pelicans have been listed as ‘Near Threatened” (IUCN Red List of Endangered Species).

Pelicans are found in all continents except Antarctica



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