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Pelican Facts

Size 4.1-6.2 ft (1.25-1.9 m)
Speed Up to 40 mph (65 km/h)
Weight 8-26 lb (3.6-12 kg)
Lifespan 16-23 years
Food Fish, shrimps, turtles
Predators Cats, coyotes
Habitat Tropical and subtropical oceans
Order Pelecaniformes
Family Pelicans
Scientific name Pelecanus
Characteristics Long bill with a throat pouch

Main Characteristics

Pelicans are large water birds with extraordinarily long, big bills and a very flexible throat pouch. Together with the kori bustard they are the world’s heaviest birds that are able to fly.

Great White Pelican Great White Pelican - Photo: AndreAnita/Shutterstock

Anatomy and Appearance

The Longest Bill

The Australian pelican has the longest bill in the world. It is 19.2 inches (49 cm) long.


Why Has the Pelican a Large Bill?

The bill of a pelican can hold three gallons (11 liters) of water. To put it more precisely: in the skin pouch located at the throat and connected to the lower bill. The stomach of a pelican is just half as big by the way.

Is the pelican so thirsty that it has to swallow so much water at one go? That can't be true. The skin pouch doesn't work like a water pistol either – even if this would be fun. The right answer is: The pelican uses its bill like a landing net or a dipper to catch some fish. It just opens its bill a little bit and "floods" the pouch with water. Then it slightly opens the bill again to let the water flow off. The delicious fish stay in the pouch and then can be swallowed.

Great White Pelican Great White Pelican - Photo: Volodymyr Burdiak/Shutterstock


What Do Pelicans Eat?

A pelican eats about 2.6 lb (1.2 kg) fish per day, which equals about 10% of its body weight.

How Do Pelicans Hunt?

Pelicans go hunting together. The birds position themselves to form the shape of a horseshoe and chase the fish into the shallow waters by hitting the water surface with their wings.


Senses and Abilities

Pelicans Fly Long Distances

The pelican is able to fly for 24 hours without any stopover at a speed of up to 35 mph (56 km/h). It covers distances of up to 310 miles (500 km) at a flight altitude of 9,840 feet (3,000 meters).

Pelican Pelican - Photo: Daniel Mirlea/Shutterstock


The Largest Pelican

With its size of six feet (1.83 meters), a wingspan of 11.3 feet (3.45 meters), and a weight of 26 pounds (12 kg), the Dalmatian pelican is the largest pelican species. Only the Andean condor and the wandering albatross sometimes surpass its wingspan.

The numbers in the following table are the maximum numbers for size, wingspan and height for each species.

4.5 ft
(1.40 m)
8.2 ft
(2.5 m)
10 lb
(4.5 kg)
4.9 ft
(1.52 m)
8.1 ft
(2.48 m)
15.4 lb
(7 kg)
4.9 ft
(1.52 m)
8.2 ft
(2.5 m)
11 lb
(5 kg)
4.3 ft
(1.32 m)
7.8 ft
(2.4 m)
15.4 lb
(7 kg)
White Pelican
5.9 ft
(1.8 m)
9.8 ft
(3 m)
19.8 lb
(9 kg)
Great White
5.7 ft
(1.75 m)
9.1 ft
(2.8 m)
24.2 lb
(10-11 kg)
6 ft
(1.83 m)
11.3 ft
(3.45 m)
26.4 lb
(10-12 kg)
6.2 ft
(1.9 m)
8.5 ft
(2.6 m)
18 lb
(8.2 kg)

Great White Pelican Great White Pelican - Photo: AndreAnita/Shutterstock

Fun Facts

Seagulls Love Pelicans

Often you see seagulls sitting on the heads of pelicans. They are waiting for their chance to get a share of the prey with little effort. As soon as the pelican slightly opens its bill to let the water flow off, the seagull tries to steal one or two fish directly out of the bill.

The Pelican Is Related To:

  • Hamerkop
  • Ibis
  • Spoonbill
  • Heron
  • Shoebill

Animals in the Same Biome:

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