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10 Pelican Facts: A Look Behind the Beak

Pelicans are large birds with large throats and cooperative hunting techniques. They live on coastlines and secluded lakes and influence local ecosystems. In addition, pelicans are one of the longest-living avian species in the wild.

This list of pelican facts will show us their unique hunting methods, which involve working together to corral fish into shallow waters. We'll further explore what makes this wonderful bird unique, from their diets to reproduction and more.

Related: Keen to read up more on the avian world? Check out these general bird facts or learn more about eagle facts and the ever-famous penguin

10 Pelican Facts

pelican on wooden post
Photo by Karo Kujanpaa on Unsplash.

1. Pelicans are ancient water birds.

Pelicans have flown through the skies for 30 million years; fossil evidence of pelicans dates them to the Early Oligocene period.

Over time, pelicans have retained their physical traits since comparisons of ancient fossils to present-day pelicans yielded no significant differences. This lack of noticeable differences suggests that pelicans have evolved their distinct features early on. 

Today, brown pelicans, among other pelican species, thrive in various habitats, from the ocean to shallow water and inland rivers and lakes. 

2. Pelicans live everywhere except Antarctica.

pelican flying
Photo by Kadin Hatch on Unsplash.

Pelicans make their homes in almost every part of the world. They can thrive in various climates, from tropical environments to cooler regions in North America and Europe. However, they do not inhabit Antarctica.

For example, the brown pelican lives along the coastlines of North and South America. Moreover, brown pelicans use their precise diving abilities to capture their prey underwater. In contrast, the American white pelican prefers freshwater habitats such as lakes and rivers across North America. The Peruvian pelican lives on the coast of Peru and Chile in South America (It is also the national bird of Romania.)

The Australian Pelican is more widespread, living in areas beyond Australia and New Zealand, including Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. However, Antarctica is not a suitable habitat for these birds due to the extreme cold and a lack of fish, their primary food source.

3. Pelicans are masters of flight.

One interesting fact about pelicans is that despite being heavy birds, they can fly due to their hollow bones and air sacs, making them lighter than they appear. Their wings are powerful enough to lift them off land and water. Surprisingly, they can soar as high as 3000 meters in the air.

The pelican's flight is a spectacle due to how they glide through the air, barely flapping their wings, thanks to thermal currents. These currents work like invisible sky elevators that allow the pelicans to climb to great heights before spreading their wings to glide.

In addition to their impressive gliding abilities, pelicans can travel up to 150 kilometers searching for food, making them true masters of the skies.

4. Pelicans can see fish underwater while flying.

water bird on rock
Photo by Alfred Leung on Unsplash.

For millions of years, pelicans have honed their sharp eyesight to the point where they can spot fish underwater. On the sides of a pelican's head are its eyes, which give them a panoramic view, similar to a 360-degree camera.

Pelicans also have a unique feature that helps them see underwater. The nictitating membrane provides crystal clear vision as they dive. Pelican corneas are flatter than humans', reducing distortion while looking down on the water. Moreover, pelicans have many cones in their eyes, which help them discern the color of fish against various underwater landscapes.

Additionally, pelicans are clever hunters. They fly low over the water and use the sun's angle to reduce glare off the surface.

5. A pelican’s pouch holds water, not food.

The gular pouch under a pelican's beak can hold up to three gallons of water, three times more than its stomach can manage. However, the widespread belief that the pelican fills its pouch with fish is a myth.

Instead, when the pelican scoops up fish from the water, it also unintentionally takes in a lot of water. The pouch drains excess water before the pelican swallows its catch. Therefore, the pelican's pouch is not a lunchbox but a tool that helps it filter out water.

More fun facts about pelicans: Did you know that pelicans also eat turtles? Also, did you know the American white pelican has a horn on its beak?

6. Pelicans breathe through their mouths.

pelicans on water
Photo by CALIN STAN on Unsplash.

Another interesting pelican fact is that pelicans always keep their mouths open to breathe because their nostrils are beneath a protective layer of the sheath, an evolutionary adaptation. Only pelicans possess this trait, which enables them to breathe efficiently.

Thanks to specialized salt glands in their nostrils, pelicans can filter excess salt from seawater. These glands purify their bloodstream, allowing them to thrive in their saltwater environment. However, because of this adaptation, pelicans breathe through their mouths rather than their nostrils. 

7. Pelicans show teamwork while catching fish.

Observing pelicans on the hunt can provide insight into their unique hunting strategy. These birds practice communal feeding, which distinguishes them from other birds. This strategy involves a coordinated dance, where pelicans work together as a team rather than as individual hunters.

A group of pelicans often form a semi-circle or a line in the water as they advance slowly, in perfect synchronization. Each flap of their wings and the sound they create drives the unsuspecting fish toward shallow waters.

Once the fish is near, the pelicans dive their heads under the water, expanding their large bill pouches to trap fish. This highly efficient method enables the birds to catch fish quickly. 

8. Pelican parents take care of their young.

Male and female pelicans flock to isolated islands, coastlines, and inland lakes during the breeding season. These regions transform into a buzzing nursery with a complex social structure. 

For example, the parents work as a team to build their nest, with one gathering materials and the other weaving them into a sturdy home for their unborn chicks. Their nesting lasts 28 to 36 days; the parents use their webbed feet to warm the eggs.

After the eggs hatch, the pelican parents feed their young ones. Initially, they bring partially digested fish in a pouch, ensuring the survival and growth of their chicks.

9. Pelican chicks are always hungry.

water bird during sunset
Photo by Birger Strahl on Unsplash.

Newborn pelican chicks have a high metabolism and must always eat fish. They rely solely on their parents' fishing skills to feed them.

As such, the daily routine of a pelican family involves the parent pelicans feeding their chicks from dawn to dusk. The nests are always full of life as the chicks constantly peep for food, with their parents taking short breaks to fish.

Each pelican chick consumes around 150 pounds of fish—five times the weight of an adult pelican—before they are mature enough to leave the nest. Also, the chicks do not store food in their pouches but swallow their meals as soon as they get them.

The parents feed their chicks, bringing partially digested fish into the baby pelican's beak, which then swallows the meal. This feeding method keeps the chicks' hunger in check and supports their growth. After six to eight weeks, they vent independently, occasionally swimming and joining group feeding.

10. Pelican populations are relatively stable.

The pelican is a beautiful bird, having adapted well to their environments and maintained robust populations despite the threat of extinction faced by other birds. However, the Dalmatian pelicans are an exception. The Dalmatian pelican—one of eight species—is "Near Threatened" on the IUCN Red List due to its shrinking habitats in parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa. 

Habitat loss from oil spills and human activities like fishing are causing their numbers to decline1. For example, most pelicans can get caught in fishing nets while diving for fish, causing them harm or sometimes killing them.

Moreover, illegal hunting has also targeted these pelicans. Nevertheless, conservationists are working hard to protect the Dalmatian pelican's habitats, enforce stricter laws against hunting, and raise awareness about the species.

Remember to share your favorite pelican facts on social media or click on over to our pelican quotes for some sayings to share and tag us!

Related: To further explore the animal kingdom, check out some other animals that start with P.


Anderson, D. R., & Keith, J. O. (1980). The human influence on seabird nesting success: Conservation implications. Biological Conservation, 18(1), 65-80.

By Mike Gomez, BA.

Mike is a degree-qualified researcher and writer passionate about increasing global awareness about climate change and encouraging people to act collectively in resolving these issues.

Fact Checked By:
Chinny Verana, BSc.

Photo by Birger Strahl on Unsplash Photo by CALIN STAN on Unsplash
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