Pelecanidae – Pelicans

American White Pelican Pelecanus erythrorhynchos ©Frank Schulenburg Website

The Pelecanidae or Pelicans, are a genus of large water birds. They are characterised by a long beak and a large throat pouch used for catching prey and draining water from the scooped up contents before swallowing. They have predominantly pale plumage, the exceptions being the brown and Peruvian pelicans. The bills, pouches and bare facial skin of all species become brightly coloured before the breeding season. The eight living pelican species have a patchy global distribution, ranging latitudinally from the tropics to the temperate zone, though they are absent from interior South America as well as from polar regions and the open ocean.

Long thought to be related to frigatebirds, cormorants, tropicbirds, gannets and boobies, pelicans instead are now known to be most closely related to the shoebill and hamerkop, and are placed in the order Pelecaniformes. Ibises, spoonbills and herons are more distant relatives, and have been classified in the same order. Fossil evidence of pelicans dates back to at least 30 million years to the remains of a beak very similar to that of modern species recovered from Oligocene strata in France. They are thought to have evolved in the Old World and spread into the Americas; this is reflected in the relationships within the genus as the eight species divide into Old World and New World lineages.

Pelicans frequent inland and coastal waters where they feed principally on fish, catching them at or near the water surface. They are gregarious birds, travelling in flocks, hunting cooperatively and breeding colonially. Four white-plumaged species tend to nest on the ground, and four brown or grey-plumaged species nest mainly in trees. Their populations have fallen through habitat destruction, disturbance and environmental pollution, and three species are of conservation concern.

The eight living pelican species were traditionally divided into two groups, one containing four ground-nesters with mainly white adult plumage (Australian, Dalmatian, great white, and American white pelicans), and one containing four grey or brown plumaged species which nest preferentially either in trees (pink-backed, spot-billed and brown pelicans), or on sea rocks (Peruvian pelican). The largely marine brown and Peruvian pelicans, formerly considered conspecific, are sometimes separated from the others.

Males are generally larger than females and have longer bills. The smallest species is the brown pelican, small individuals of which can be no more than 2.75 kg and 1.06 m long, with a wingspan of as little as 1.83 m. The largest is believed to be the Dalmatian, at up to 15 kg and 1.83 m in length, with a maximum wingspan of 3 m. The Australian pelican’s bill may grow up to 0.5 m long in large males, the longest of any bird.

Pelicans have a network of subcutaneous air sacs under their skin situated across the ventral surface including the throat, breast and undersides of the wings, as well as having air sacs in their bones. The air sacs are connected to the airways of the respiratory system, and the pelican can keep its air sacs inflated by closing its glottis, but it is not clear how air sacs are inflated.

Species List

According to the IOC there are eight species in this family, which are:

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

Species Links
  • American White Pelican Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

    Cornell Species Account
    One of the largest North American birds, the American White Pelican is majestic in the air. The birds soar with incredible steadiness on broad, white-and-black wings
  • American White Pelican Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

    IUCN Species Status
  • American White Pelican Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

    IBC Species Account
    IBC species account
  • American White Pelican Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

    BirdLife Species Account
    BirdLife profile & Status
  • American White Pelican Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

    HBW Species Account
    HBW species account
  • American White Pelican Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

    Species Account
    Sound archive and distribution map.
  • American White Pelican Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

    Species Account
    The American white pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) is a large aquatic soaring bird from the order Pelecaniformes. It breeds in interior North America, moving south and to the coasts, as far as Central America and South America, in winter.
  • Australian Pelican Pelecanus conspicillatus

    BirdLife Species Account
    BirdLife species profile & status
  • Australian Pelican Pelecanus conspicillatus

    Species Account
    The Australian Pelican's bill is 40 cm - 50 cm long and is larger in males than females. Pelicans have large wings and a wingspan of 2.3 m - 2.5 m.
  • Australian Pelican Pelecanus conspicillatus

    HBW Species Account
    HBW species account
  • Australian Pelican Pelecanus conspicillatus

    Species Account
    Sound archive and distribution map.
  • Australian Pelican Pelecanus conspicillatus

    Species Account
    The Australian pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus) is a large waterbird of the family Pelecanidae, widespread on the inland and coastal waters of Australia and New Guinea, also in Fiji, parts of Indonesia and as a vagrant in New Zealand. It is a predominantly white bird with black wings and a pink bill. It has been recorded as having the longest bill of any living bird. It mainly eats fish, but will also consume birds and scavenges for scraps.
  • Brown Pelican Pelecanus occidentalis

    Species Account
    The brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) is a small pelican found in the Americas. It is one of the best known and most prominent birds found in the coastal areas of the southern and western United States. It is one of only three pelican species found in the Western Hemisphere and one of the only two that feeds by diving into the water.
  • Brown Pelican Pelecanus occidentalis

    Cornell Species Account
    The Brown Pelican is a comically elegant bird with an oversized bill, sinuous neck, and big, dark body.
  • Brown Pelican Pelecanus occidentalis

    HBW Species Account
    HBW species account
  • Brown Pelican Pelecanus occidentalis

    BirdLife Species Account
    BirdLife species profile & status
  • Brown Pelican Pelecanus occidentalis

    IUCN Species Status
  • Brown Pelican Pelecanus occidentalis

    IBC Species Account
    IBC species account
  • Brown Pelican Pelecanus occidentalis

    Species Account
    Sound archive and distribution map.
  • Dalmatian Pelican Pelecanus crispus

    IBC Species Account
    IBC species account
  • Dalmatian Pelican Pelecanus crispus

    Webpage
    BirdLife species profile & status
  • Dalmatian Pelican Pelecanus crispus

    HBW Species Account
    HBW Species account
  • Dalmatian Pelican Pelecanus crispus

    IUCN Species Status
  • Dalmatian Pelican Pelecanus crispus

    Species Account
    Sound archive and distribution map.
  • Dalmatian Pelican Pelecanus crispus

    Species Account
    The Dalmatian pelican (Pelecanus crispus) is a massive member of the pelican family. It breeds from southeastern Europe to India and China in swamps and shallow lakes. The nest is a crude heap of vegetation.
  • Great White Pelican Pelecanus onocrotalus

    Species Account
    Sound archive and distribution map.
  • Great White Pelican Pelecanus onocrotalus

    Species Account
    The great white pelican (Pelecanus onocrotalus) also known as the eastern white pelican, rosy pelican or white pelican is a bird in the pelican family.[2] It breeds from southeastern Europe through Asia and in Africa in swamps and shallow lakes.
  • Great White Pelican Pelecanus onocrotalus

    IBC Species Account
    IBC species account
  • Great White Pelican Pelecanus onocrotalus

    IUCN Species Status
  • Great White Pelican Pelecanus onocrotalus

    BirdLife Species Account
    BirdLife species profile & status
  • Great White Pelican Pelecanus onocrotalus

    HBW Species Account
    HBW species account
  • Peruvian Pelican Pelecanus thagus

    IBC Species Account
    IBC species account & image
  • Peruvian Pelican Pelecanus thagus

    BirdLife Species Account
    BirdLife species profile & status
  • Peruvian Pelican Pelecanus thagus

    HBW Species Account
    HBW species account
  • Peruvian Pelican Pelecanus thagus

    Species Account
  • Peruvian Pelican Pelecanus thagus

    Species Account
    Sound archive and distribution map.
  • Peruvian Pelican Pelecanus thagus

    Species Account
    The Peruvian pelican (Pelecanus thagus) is a member of the pelican family. It lives on the west coast of South America, from Lobos de Tierra Island in Peru to Pupuya Islet in Chile.
  • Peruvian Pelican Pelecanus thagus

    Cornell Species Account
    Cornell species account
  • Pink-backed Pelican Pelecanus rufescens

    Species Account
    Sound archive and distribution map.
  • Pink-backed Pelican Pelecanus rufescens

    Species Account
    The pink-backed pelican (Pelecanus rufescens) is a bird of the pelican family. It is a resident breeder in swamps and shallow lakes of Africa, southern Arabia, southern India and is apparently extirpated in Madagascar.
  • Pink-backed Pelican Pelecanus rufescens

    BirdLife Species Account
    BirdLife species profile & status
  • Pink-backed Pelican Pelecanus rufescens

    IUCN Species Status
  • Pink-backed Pelican Pelecanus rufescens

    HBW Species Account
    HBW species account
  • Pink-backed Pelican Pelecanus rufescens

    IBC Species Account
  • Spot-billed Pelican Pelecanus philippensis

    Species Account
    The Spotbilled Pelican (Pelecanus phillipensis), one of the largest birds of the Indian subcontinent, is in danger of vanishing forever from the face of the earth. This is the story of a group of dedicated people fighting to save one of the five remaining breeding colonies of this endangered bird, in a small village in Karnataka…
  • Spot-billed Pelican Pelecanus philippensis

    IBC Species Account
    IBC species account
  • Spot-billed Pelican Pelecanus philippensis

    BirdLife Species Account
    Full species account...
  • Spot-billed Pelican Pelecanus philippensis

    HBW Species Account
    HBW species account
  • Spot-billed Pelican Pelecanus philippensis

    IUCN Species Status
  • Spot-billed Pelican Pelecanus philippensis

    Species Account
    Sound archive and distribution map.
Number of Species
  • Number of bird species: 8

Useful Reading
  • Pelican

    | By Barbara Allen | Reaktion Books | 2019 | Paperback | 228 pages, 80 colour & 20 b/w photos and illustrations | ISBN: 9781789140750 Buy this book from NHBS.com
  • Pelicans in the Former USSR

    | Edited by AJ Crivelli, VG Krivenko & VG Vinogradov | Wetlands International | 1994 | Paperback | 152 pages, maps, tables | ISBN: 9780950573137 Buy this book from NHBS.com
  • Pelicans, Cormorants and their Relatives ? The Pelicaniformes

    | By J Bryan Nelson, illustrated by John Busby, Andrew Mackay & Bas Teunis | OUP | 2006 | Hardback | 661 pages, 12 colour plates, 159 b/w illustrations, 62 maps ISBN: 9780198577270 Buy this book from NHBS.com
Photographers & Artists
  • American White Pelican Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

    Gallery
    Image portfolio
  • American White Pelican Pelecanus erythrorhynchos Flight

    Gallery
    Images
  • Australian Pelican Pelecanus conspicillatus

    Gallery
    [Group] images
  • Australian Pelican Pelecanus conspicillatus

    Gallery
    Brilliant image
  • Australian Pelican Pelecanus conspicillatus

    Gallery
    Excellent head shot…
  • Brown Pelican Pelecanus occidentalis urinator

    Gallery
    Striking image
  • Brown Pelican Pelecanus occidentalis

    Gallery
    Very good images from the Galapagos…
  • Brown Pelican Pelecanus occidentalis

    Gallery
    Excellent images
  • Dalmatian Pelican Pelecanus crispus

    Gallery
    Image
  • Dalmatian Pelican Pelecanus crispus

    Gallery
    Prize winning image…
  • Dalmatian Pelican Pelecanus crispus

    Gallery
    Brilliant head shot
  • Dalmatian Pelican Pelecanus crispus

    Gallery
    [Group] image
  • Great White Pelican Pelecanus onocrotalus

    Gallery
    Portfolio of images…
  • Peruvian Pelican Pelecanus thagus

    Gallery
    Image gallery…
  • Pink-backed Pelican Pelecanus rufescens

    Gallery
    Excellent images
  • Pink-backed Pelican Pelecanus rufescens

    Gallery
    Fine image

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