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8 Types of Pelicans: Species, Identification, and Photos

Pelicans are large water birds known for their long beaks and throat pouches, which they use for fishing. Found on all continents except Antarctica, the various types of pelicans have developed unique adaptations, making them a diverse group of avians. Learn to distinguish each species as you read this post.

Pelican Classification

Pelicans, part of the Pelicanus genus, belong to the larger Pelecanidae family. Identified as members of the Pelecaniformes order within the Aves class, they are globally recognized for their sizable forms and large beaks. 

Eight species of pelicans live on every continent except Antarctica. They are the American White, Great White, Dalmatian, Australian, Pink-back\ed, Spot-billed, Brown, and Peruvian pelicans.

The following sections will guide you in distinguishing each species by its appearance, distribution, and many more.

8 Types of Pelicans

1. American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos)

 American White Pelican
Photo by Manjith Kainickara on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 (Cropped from original).

The American White Pelican stands out due to its wingspan of up to nine feet. The bird also features white feathers, black wing tips, and an oversized orange bill with a throat pouch. 

Unlike Brown Pelicans, American white pelicans herd fish into shallow waters for easy capture. Moreover, during nesting season, American White Pelicans gather in large colonies on isolated islands in freshwater lakes, consisting of several thousand pairs of pelicans.

This avian, a water bird, consumes about four pounds of fish daily.

2. Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis)

Brown Pelican
Photo by Brocken Inaglory on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 (Cropped from original).

The Brown Pelican has a wingspan of up to 8 feet and weighs approximately 12 pounds. This brown and gray bird has a white neck and a yellow head. Its most striking characteristic is its oversized bill, fitted with a flexible pouch that allows it to catch fish. 

The Brown Pelican is a plunge diver that catches fish with its pouch. It is one of two pelican species that dives from the air into the water to catch food.

This bird lives on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the Americas, from Nova Scotia to Venezuela and northern Chile to British Columbia. 

Once endangered from pesticide exposure, these sea birds were on the U.S. Endangered Species List from 1970 to 20091. DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane - a pesticide) threats lessened with its nationwide ban in 1972, allowing the Brown Pelican population to rebound gradually.

3. Peruvian Pelican (Pelecanus thagus)

Peruvian Pelican
Photo by Diane Mendoza on Pexels.

The Peruvian Pelican lives along the coastal regions of Peru and Chile. It forms large colonies on rocky coasts and feeds on small fish from shallow offshore waters.

With a stark coloration, a white stripe runs from the bill top to its crown and sides of the neck. The pelican's shoulders display a dark brown patch, its head adorned with long tufted feathers. A darker tone engulfs most of its facial skin, with a glimpse of pink around the eye. A yellow base and reddish tip define the bill, with a striking, blue-striped gular pouch becoming prominent during the breeding season.

Previously seen as a Brown pelican subspecies, it is now a species due to noticeable size differences and divergence in plumage and bill color. The absence of hybridization with Brown pelicans where their habitats converge further strengthens this recognition2.

Moreover, unlike Brown Pelicans, this type of pelican doesn't dive from high up for food. It prefers a shallow dive or feeds while floating on the water surface.

4. Great White Pelican (Pelecanus onocrotalus)

Great White Pelican
Photo by . Ray in Manila on Flickr licensed under CC BY 2.0 (Cropped from original).

The Great White Pelican has a wingspan of 3.3 feet. Its plumage is a blend of pink and white. The pink facial patch around its eyes becomes deeper during mating season, a signal to potential mates. 

These birds live in freshwater habitats, coastal lagoons, and estuaries across Africa, Southeast Europe, and Asia. Moreover, the Great White Pelican hunts in large colonies and groups. They form a semicircle on the water and use their large bill pouches to scoop up their prey in a coordinated movement.

5. Dalmatian Pelican (Pelecanus crispus)

Dalmatian Pelican
Photo by Thomas Bresson on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY 2.0 (Cropped from original).

The Dalmatian Pelican inhabits Eastern Europe, Russia, and Asia. It is one of the world's largest flying birds, with a body length of up to 67 inches and a wingspan of up to 11.5 feet. 

It has silvery-white feathers that take on a grayish tint in summer, gray legs, and curly nape feathers.

These birds prefer to live in large colonies in large shallow lakes, deltas, and lagoons. They work together to drive fish into shallow waters, scooping them with their long beaks and orange pouches. 

Despite its size, it can quickly skim over water or ride thermal updrafts. These birds consume up to 2.64 pounds of fish daily to sustain their hefty frames. Their mating season becomes more vocal between March and June, and they build large floating nests.

Interestingly, Brown and Dalmatian Pelicans are the only pelican species with a fully sequenced genome.

6. Australian Pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus)

Australian Pelican
Photo by Bernard Spragg. NZ on Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).

The Australian Pelican is also among the planet’s largest flying birds. It has a wingspan of up to 11 feet and the world's longest bill, which can grow up to 20 inches. Its color is primarily white, with a white upper-wing panel and a contrasting white V on its black-rumped backside.

This type of pelican inhabits Australia, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, Fiji, and parts of Indonesia. It lives on expansive lakes and reservoirs, coastal islands, and shores with ample open water and little aquatic vegetation.

Australian Pelicans gather in major colonies during the breeding season. They primarily feed on fish but will not refuse crustaceans, tadpoles, and even small turtles. Moreover, they cooperate to herd fish into a corner for a communal feast.

7. Pink-Backed Pelican (Pelecanus rufescens)

 Pink-Backed Pelican
Photo by Greg Hume on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 (Cropped from original).

The Pink-Backed Pelican lives in sub-Saharan Africa, featuring shades of grey and white with a pinkish hue on its back. Meanwhile, adult pelicans have an impressive wingspan of nearly 10 feet. 

Moreover, their bills can hold up to 13 liters of water, which acts as a natural cooling system and helps them survive the hot African climate. 

Their breeding season also aligns with the rainy seasons when food is abundant. Both parents play an active role in nesting, incubating the eggs, and feeding the young.

8. Spot-billed pelican (Pelecanus philippensis)

Spot-billed pelican
Photo by J.M.Garg on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 (Cropped from original).

The Spot-billed Pelican is native to southern Asia. It is commonly found in freshwater and brackish habitats, preferring lakes and reservoirs. The bird has gray plumage and spots on its upper bill, hence the name. 

Unlike other pelican species, the Spot-Billed Pelican glides through the water to catch fish, amphibians, and crustaceans with its large, pouch-like bills. 

Conclusion

Pelicans include several species, such as the coastal Brown Pelican and the Australian Pelican, which has the longest beak among birds. Moreover, they help maintain the health of aquatic ecosystems by regulating fish populations.

Since they are also an essential link in the food chain, protecting this wonderful bird family is necessary to preserve the intricate web of life on Earth.

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:
Isabela Sedano, BEng.

Photo by A. G. Rosales on Pexels.
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