Australian pelicans largest flying bird

Australian pelicans (Pelecanus conspicillatus) are waterbirds. Pelicans make their home in wetlands, waterways, lagoons, swamps, rivers, lakes and coastlines throughout Australia. Australian pelicans are the largest flying birds.

Furthermore, living in both fresh and saltwater, they are very adaptable birds. 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.

Australian pelicans have a wingspan of up to 2.5 metres.
Pelican stretching its wings
Australian pelicans largest flying bird
Wingspan up to 2.5 metres

Australian Pelicans are primarily white with black tips on their wings and tail. They have a streak of grey feathers behind their head to halfway down their neck. Their eyes are brown/black and yellow. Their bill and gular (bill pouch) are pink, and they have the longest bill for any bird in the world, which is 40 – 50 cm long.

A pelicans bill is very sensitive, which aids in locating fish in muddy waters. A well-designed bill with a small and sharp hook at the tip assists in grasping onto slippery food.

Australian pelican enjoying its successful fishing expedition Australian pelicans largest flying bird
Successful fishing experience

After catching a fish, the pelican will manoeuvre its bill to ensure its food slides down its throat, usually headfirst. The big pocket of skin below their beak is known as the gular. It functions as a net to capture food and water. Their legs and feet are blue-grey and have four webbed toes. The Australian White Pelican has the largest bill of any bird worldwide.

Pelican preening, Australian pelican
Australian pelicans largest flying bird
Pelican preening

Pelicans are flighty in that they are always searching for suitable wetland areas with a constant food supply.

Interestingly, their skeleton equates to around 10% of their body weight which allows them to remain in the air for up to 24 hours, mainly soaring and gliding in the thermals to conserve energy.  

 Galapagos Island pelican soaring.
Galapagos Pelican
Australian pelicans largest flying bird
Soaring Galapagos pelican

Australia White Pelicans are the largest flying bird. They are found in rivers, swamps, wetlands and sandbars throughout Australia, Papua New Guinea, western Indonesia and New Zealand. Being fish eaters, they generally can be found in areas where the seafood is abundant. There are around 300,000 – 500,000 individuals in Australia.

pelican portrait
Centennial Parklands
Australian pelicans largest flying bird
Pelican portrait

A fascinating fact about the Australian white pelicans is that one never sees pelican nests or young pelicans. This is because pelicans are very private and prefer to build their nests in secluded and 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
  • Population size is unknown 

A pelicans primary diet is fish. However, on occasions, they have been known to eat crustaceans, frogs, tadpoles, insects, reptiles, amphibians, and other seafood options. When food is scarce, pelicans eat small birds, seagulls and ducklings.

Pelican feeding frenzy on Kangaroo Island, Australia
Australian pelicans largest flying bird
Pelican feeding frenzy

The Australian pelican, the largest flying bird, live in and breed in large colonies, and they tend to breed all year round. A female will usually lay 1-3 eggs in its nest. The incubation period is around 35 days. After that, both parents will take turns incubating their eggs. Chicks are born helpless, blind and featherless and are tended to by both parents to care for and feed their hatchling. During the breeding season, a pelicans bill and gular will become a darker shade of pink. Courtship is very animated. Pelicans will use their beaks, wings and pouches for visual displays for courting. The pelicans often will fly long distances in search of appropriate breeding sites. Breeding sites will always be close to water and food sources while at the same time being safe and secluded.

Young chicks remain dependent on their parent for food. Adult pelicans feed their chicks with regurgitated food. After around, one-month chicks will leave their nest to form creches of about 100 birds. Chicks will remain in their creche for approximately two months, after which they learn to fly and become independent. They are fully mature after three years. 


Pelicans have very few predators. However, young chicks are preyed upon by dogs and cats, and ravens. For this reason, pelicans mostly will make their nests in very isolated and secluded areas.

Conservation Status – applies to all species of pelicans

The Australian White Pelican population is stable. However, there are some fluctuations in population in some wetland areas, which are subject to drought, habitat loss and human populations.

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

Brown pelican 

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

Brown pelican with an American white pelican  in the wetlands of California
Australian pelicans largest flying bird
Brown pelican with an American white pelican in the wetlands of California
Peruvian pelican

Habitat: West coast of South America. Peruvian pelican numbers are decreasing, considered Near Threatened (IUCN Red List of Endangered Species).

Great white pelican

Habitat: Found widespread in Asia, Africa and southeastern Europe. 

Great white pelican, Ethiopia
Australian pelicans largest flying bird
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 southeastern Europe to Russia and China to the Indian subcontinent. It is the largest freshwater bird in the world. These pelicans are classified as ‘Vulnerable” (IUCN Red List of Endangered Species).

Spot-billed pelican

Habitat: Southeast Asia.  Due to their population decreasing, the pelicans are classified as ‘Near Threatened” (IUCN Red List of Endangered Species).

Pelicans are found in all continents except Antarctica

 Another endemic Australian bird is the Australian White Ibis


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