Pelicans are very large water birds with a distinctive pouch under the beak that belong to the bird Pelecanidae. Along with the darters, cormorants, gannets, boobies, frigatebirds, and tropicbirds, they make up the order Pelecaniformes. Like other birds in that group, pelicans have all four webbed toes (totipalmate).

Pelicans use two different ways to feed:

  • White pelicans all over the world use a method called group fishing. They will form a line and collectively chase schools of small fish into shallower water. Then they can simply scoop them up. Larger fish are caught with the bill-tip and then tossed up in the air to be caught and slid into the gullet head first.
  • Plunge-diving, which is used almost exclusively by the American Brown Pelican. White pelicans like the Peruvian Pelican of the western South American coast, or the Australian Pelican will sometimes use this method but it is rare.

Pelicans can grow to a wingspan of three meters and weigh 13 kilograms. Males are generally larger than females and have a longer bill.

From fossil records it is known that pelicans have been around for over 40 million years. Modern pelicans are found on all continents except Antarctica: they are birds of inland and coastal waters and are absent from polar regions, the deep ocean, oceanic islands, and inland South America.

Pelicans are sociable and typically nest colonially. The male brings nest material which the female uses to form a simple structure. Pairs are monogamous for only a single season, however the pair bond extends only to the nesting area; away from the nest mates are independent.


  • Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis
  • Peruvian Pelican, Pelecanus thagus
  • American White Pelican, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos
  • Great White Pelican, Pelecanus onocrotalus
  • Dalmatian Pelican, Pelecanus crispus
  • Pink-backed Pelican, Pelecanus rufescens
  • Spot-billed Pelican, Pelecanus philippensis
  • Australian Pelican, Pelecanus conspicillatus

PHOTO CAPTION: Pink-backed Pelicans (Pelecanus rufescens)