There is nothing ordinary about pelicans. The enormous pouches under their long, hooked bills make them easy to recognize. In fact, the Australian pelican may have the longest bill of any bird. Pelicans are also among the heaviest flying birds in the world. They weigh as much as 33 pounds (15 kilograms), and their length is between 41 and 74 inches (105 and 188 centimeters) from the tip of their bills to the end of their tails. They also have long necks and webbed feet. Except for the brown pelican, most of the birds in the pelican family have white or light gray feathers with black wingtips.
Pelicans live on every continent except Antarctica. Brown pelicans live mostly along the coasts of North and South America. The other pelicans usually breed inland, and can be found on all continents except South America.
At breeding time, pelicans prefer nesting areas that are undisturbed, with water nearby where there are plenty of fish. Brown pelicans are the only true seabirds in the group, and they live along seacoasts. In general, the other pelicans breed near freshwater lakes and rivers, although they may spend some time in saltwater areas when they are not nesting.
Pelicans eat mainly fish, although they may occasionally take lizards, snakes, birds, small mammals, salamanders, and crayfish. Brown pelicans often catch fish by plunging into the water from the air, while other pelicans usually scoop up fish while swimming.
BEHAVIOR AND REPRODUCTION
Pelicans float high on the water and raise their wings slightly as they float along. When they fly, their head is pulled back over their shoulders to form an S-curve. Groups of pelicans usually fly to their feeding places in a line.
Most pelicans breed in large colonies.
Some build tree nests, and others nest on the ground. Female pelicans usually lay two or three eggs, and the adults take turns sitting on them. When they hatch, the chicks are naked and helpless, and often only one survives. The parents regurgitate (spit up) food into their big pouches for the chicks to eat until the young birds are on their own, usually at the age of three months.
PELICANS AND PEOPLE
Pelicans were tamed in ancient Egypt, and they were used as fishing helpers in India. Because they look so strange, there have been many myths, legends, and stories told about pelicans. They were also used as religious symbols for a mother’s love.
The spot-billed pelican is listed as Vulnerable, facing a high risk of extinction, and the Dalmatian pelican is close to being threatened. The brown pelican was once listed as Endangered in all of North and South America, but it was removed from the list for Florida and Alabama because it is doing better in those areas.