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Interesting Facts About the Australian Pelican

Meghna Wani
Though the Australian Pelican is a large and heavy waterbird, it can soar up to a height of 3,000 feet and remain in the air for almost 24 hours, covering hundreds of kilometers in a single flight. Amazed? Find out more interesting facts about the Australian Pelican right here.

Did You Know?

Pelicans rub the back of their head on preen glands that release an oily secretion, which they use on their plumage to keep it waterproof.
The Australian Pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus) gets its scientific name from the Latin verb conspicere, which means 'to perceive'. The word pelican is derived from pelekas (woodpecker) and pelekys (ax). Both the words point towards its long bill. Speaking of its long bill, the Australian Pelican holds the record of having the longest bill at 49 cm.
This bird is unique for one more reason; amongst the 8 species of pelicans in the world, the Australian Pelican proudly enjoys its record of being the biggest. Also, this is the only pelican found in Australia.

The group flight of these birds is an amazing sight. Usually, they start by flapping and soaring upwards.
After achieving a slight altitude, one bird takes the lead, and is followed by successive birds peeling off one after the other. This staged manner of flight usually takes a lot of time if the flock is large. Also, huge flocks of pelicans are usually a threat to fishermen because they consume staggering amounts of fish.

Scientific Classification

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Pelecaniformes
Family: Pelecanidae
Genus: Pelecanus
Species: P. conspicillatus


Australian Pelicans are one of the heaviest flying birds, and weigh anywhere between 4-6.5 kg, though there have been specimens that have tipped the scales at 8.5 kg. Male pelicans are slightly bigger than females. In spite of its heavy weight, the Australian Pelican can fly really high, and for long periods of time.
How is it possible?
Well ... because they have a light skeleton. Their skeleton amounts to only one-tenth of their total body weight. They also have air sacs in their bones, beneath the skin of the throat, and also beneath the wings, that gives them the extra buoyancy.
Australian Pelicans have short and strong legs with webbed toes, and a short tail that is somewhat square in shape. They have around 20-24 primary feathers and 30-35 secondary feathers. Australian Pelicans are around 1.6-1.8 m in length, and have a wingspan of around 2.3 to 2.6 m.
To fly, these birds usually exploit thermals. They fly by holding their wings horizontal and keeping their long neck close to their body. It is seen that the lifespan of Australian Pelicans is anywhere between 10-25 years.
Predominantly, the color of Australian Pelicans is white. On the upper side of the wing, there are white-colored feathers followed by black wingtips. The bill is normally pale-yellow, and the pouch is pale-pink.
However, during courtship, the bill becomes orange, and the color of the pouch keeps changing between dark-blue, pink, and scarlet. The eye is bluish-black with a pale yellow ring. The bill tip is another distinguishing feature; it is hook-shaped and helps in catching slippery fish.

Distribution and Habitat

Australian Pelicans are mainly found in Australia and Tasmania. As opposed to a fixed pattern most migratory birds follow, these birds usually do not have any particular schedule of movement. They simply go wherever they find food supplies. Droughts are another reason why these birds change location.
Whenever a water body starts drying and reaches an extent where food becomes sparse, these birds start dispersing. While being a regular visitor of New Guinea, Bismarck Islands, and Solomon Islands, Australian Pelicans also reach New Zealand, Java, and Sumatra.
They are usually spotted in large open expanses that do not have much aquatic vegetation. They only require open waters that can provide a continuous supply of food. Lakes, reservoirs, rivers, estuaries, swamps, lagoons, and ponds are usually their habitat.
The surrounding environment usually doesn't matter. It can be anything; a forest, a desert, a city or a grassland, as long as there are enough fish to fill their stomach, they will stay.


Australian Pelicans are mainly piscivores, which means their primary food is fish. Their favorite prey is goldfish, European carp, and European perch. They are, however, not very selective about what they eat. They can manage with any species of fish.
They have been known to eat crustaceans, shrimp in the Macrobrachium genus, small turtles, frogs, and, at times, even smaller birds. They also nosh on eggs, nestlings, and fledglings of other birds.
Their way of killing terrestrial prey can be pretty harsh. They hold the prey underwater and kill them by drowning. There are sightings that reptiles, and even small dogs, have been swallowed by them. Their method of catching prey, especially fish, is a little different. They usually work in groups, but can also hunt in solitary.
All pelicans start flapping their wings against water, which, in turn, scares the school of fish. They do this continuously and drive the fish towards shallow water. As the fish start accumulating, the pelicans feed by plunge-diving. During the plunge, they expand their throat pouch, which acts as a net and catch the prey.
After the prey is caught, they drain the excess water by pressing the pouch against their breast. The fish is maneuvered to make its head face downwards towards the throat, and then gulped with a jerk. If the fish is large, they use the hooked bill tip to catch the fish, toss it into the air and then slide it down their throat.

Nesting and Breeding

Australian Pelicans achieve sexual maturity at the age of 2-3 years. Breeding season occurs anytime after rainfall. It would also correct to say that they breed perennially. They usually prefer to breed in large colonies. To attract a female pelican, male pelicans continuously open and shut their bills, which creates ripples in their pouch.
The color of the bill and pouch also change during the period of courtship. The pouch turns bright pink, the throat turns bright yellow, and some parts of the bill become bright blue.

The nest of pelicans is built by scraping out a hollow in the ground, and using items such as grass, twigs, and feathers to make a padding. After the winning male grabs the attention of the female pelican, they copulate. The female will lay 1-3 chalky-white eggs in a week's time. The eggs will be incubated for around 32-37 days by both parents.
The chicks are born without feathers, but quickly grow brown-colored feathers. Usually, the first chick that comes out of the egg will survive, while the other eventually dies of starvation.
After birth, for the first two weeks, the chicks will be fed regurgitated food from the parents' stomach. Slowly, they move on to small fish and invertebrates. Young pelicans stay with their parents for three months before fledging, and then eventually leave the nest as individual birds.
It is seen that Australian Pelicans get accustomed to human beings easily, and can adapt to artificial bodies of water in cities. Lastly, these birds fall in the category of 'least concern' in the conservation status; therefore, there is no fear of this species becoming sparse anytime in the near future.