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Eastern white pelican

Scientific name: Pelecanus onocrotalus

ORDER: Pelecaniformes
FAMILY: Pelecanidae

STATISTICS: Wingspan: 63-71 inches; Weight: 11-33 pounds

The eastern white pelican is pure white with black flight feathers. The bare face and neck skin is yellow to pink in coloration. The beak is long and slender and the nostrils are long thin slits. The distinctive prominent wattle is yellow to orange. The legs are short, pink in color, and set far back on the body. During breeding season, facial skin becomes distinctly pinkish-orange in the males and bright orange in the females. Juveniles are grayish-brown with dark flight feathers. The pelican is among the heaviest flighted birds.

Eastern Europe (Danube Delta) east to western Mongolia. In winter this pelican migrates to northeast Africa and Iraq east to north India. There are also year-round populations in Africa (south of the Sahara Desert) and single sites in northwest India and South Vietnam.

In Europe, the habitat includes freshwater lakes, deltas, marshes, or swamps; that is, wherever sufficient amounts of reed beds or grasses exist for nesting. In Africa, the habitat includes lowlands and alkaline or freshwater lakes. The pelican's fishing technique demands shallow, warm water.

This bird does everything in large groups called colonies. Feeding usually occurs early in the day and is done within a few hours. The rest of the day is spent bathing, cleaning feathers, and resting on sandbars or small islands. The pelican bathes by ducking its head and body in water while flapping its wings.
The most obvious display pelicans exhibit when hot is called gular fluttering. Since birds do not have sweat glands, they must release heat like dogs – by panting. Pelicans will open their massive beaks and rapidly vibrate their pouches. Increased blood flow is sent to the blood vessels in the skin and the move effectively releases heat and cools the bird. A pelican may also spread its wings to increase blood flow and cool its body.
Males may be territorial and threaten intruders by gaping, clapping their bills, and bowing. If the intruder persists, the male will attack using its bill as its main defense.
The lower mandible of the pelican’s beak is flexible and has a large pouch attached to it. This pouch is used to catch fish, cool itself and occasionally collect rainwater. Fish are rarely carried in the pouch. Right after a pelican catches the fish, water drains out of the pouch and the pelican swallows the fish. Once caught, a fish rarely escapes.

Breeding occurs in spring in temperate zones of Europe, but occurs year-round in Africa. This pelican breeds in a large colony near water. Pair formation, nest site selection, and nest building occur within a few hours to no more than a week. Nests of sticks and rocks are made on the ground. This pelican averages two eggs, and incubation lasts 29-36 days. The birds are fledged at 65-75 days, while sexual maturity is reached at three to four years.

PREY/PREDATOR: Prey to humans
Predator to fish

It primarily eats fish. In Europe it prefers carp while in Africa it prefers cichlids.

There is a large African population of approximately 75,000 pairs. The eastern white pelican is not globally threatened, although this species is declining slightly in Europe (Danube Delta) due to human activity. It is listed as Least Concern by IUCN although the status has not been well researched.


  • Large fish make up 90 percent of this pelican’s diet. The other ten percent includes abundant small fish and, in southwest Africa, eggs and chicks of the Cape cormorant. The pelican generally eats ten percent of its weight in fish each day.
  • A pelican often feeds cooperatively with other pelicans. Eight to12 pelicans will get in a horseshoe formation and surround fish, forcing them into shallow water where they are easily scooped up.
  • The eastern white pelican is also known as the great white pelican.


  1. Hoyo, Josep. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 1, Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, 1992.
  2. BirdLife International 2004. Pelecanus onocrotalus. In: IUCN 2007. 2007 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Downloaded on 03 September 2008.


Published: December 2008 

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