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Pink-backed pelican

Scientific name: Pelecanus rufescens

ORDER: Pelecaniformes
FAMILY: Pelencanidae

STATISTICS: Weight: 10-17 lbs; Height: 3-4 ft; Wingspan: 7-9 ft

The pink-backed pelican is pale gray with a pinkish back and underparts. It is one of the smaller of the seven pelican species. The leg color can range from gray to yellow to reddish orange. Young are similar to adults but browner with only faint pink coloration.

Pelicans are some of the heaviest flying birds. Males tend to be heavier and have longer bills than females. A pelican’s bill is very distinctive. The upper part of the beak has ridges along the inside and ends in a sharp tip. It has small, thick nostrils that look like slits along the upper part of the beak. The lower part of the beak houses an enormous skin pouch. Pelicans have long necks, which allow them to rest their bill on their breast.

Central and South Africa and Southwest Arabia

Coastal and wetland areas with freshwater

Pink-backs forage individually instead of in groups with coordinated efforts like the eastern white pelicans. The lower bill has an enormous pouch of skin that is fastened to the lower mandible; this pouch can hold up to three gallons, which, by the way, is more than its belly can! It uses the pouch as a kind of net and only holds the fish in it long enough to squeeze the water out through the corners of its mouth. Pink-backed pelicans are noted to feed in the mornings and evenings.

The pelican is an awkward bird on land, but in the air it is graceful. In level flight the pelican flies with its head held back on its shoulders and its bill resting on its folded neck. It propels itself with slow and powerful beats of its wings. Its webbed feet make powerful paddles. It can thermoregulate, or control, its body temperature by spreading its wing out when hot.

The pink-backed pelicans may breed throughout the year. It has colonial nesting grounds where it will build its nests in trees, reeds, or low bushes along the waterfronts, on the ground on sandy islands, and in mangroves. It lays two to three large white eggs in nests built of small sticks. A pair will reuse the same nest year after year if it has not been destroyed. The incubation period is 30 days long. There is relatively high chick mortality due to aggression between nest mates. Older chicks will generally monopolize the food and become aggressive to younger chicks in order to keep the food for themselves.

The young are fed regurgitated food obtained by thrusting their bills down their parent’s gullet. The young are usually fledged at 65 to 75 days and are sexually mature by the time they are three to four years old.

Prey to: man
Predator to: fish

Fish, small invertebrates and amphibians

It is listed on the IUCN Red List as Lower Risk-Least Concern because it has a large global population estimated to be around 50,000 to 100,000 individuals.


  • It is a mostly silent bird, only emitting an occasional grunt.
  • There is a fun limerick about pelican’s comical appearance that begins, “A wonderful bird is the pelican, His bill will hold more that his belly can.” This is not only fun, but truthful as well.


  1. del Hoyo, Josep, Elliott, Andrew, Sargatal, Jordi, ed. Handbook of Birds of the World, Volume 1. Lynx Edicions 1992.
  2. BirdLife International 2004. Pelecanus rufescens. In: IUCN 2007. 2007 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
  3. Pelican. The Complete Reference Collection. Britanica CD Rom. 1998.

Published: March 2011

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