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Amazing Facts About Pelicans

PelicansPhoto: Wayne Butterworth
Earth’s oceans and waterways wouldn’t be the same without the amazing birds that wing so gracefully over water and crashing waves. Pelicans are fascinating creatures. Not only are they gigantic, with wingspans as large as 10 feet, but they can also soar up to heights of 10,000 feet on thermals!
There are eight living species of pelicans in the world. What’s more, these majestic birds inhabit every continent except Antarctica, from southern-lying Tasmania all the way up to Western Canada. Most pelicans live in warm regions, around coasts and river estuaries, where they feed on everything from fish and crustaceans to tadpoles and turtles. If they’re really hungry and desperate, they might even drown and swallow a seagull!

When it eats, the pelican catches prey in its large gular sack, squeezes the water out the side of its bill, moves the food until it is facing head-down in its throat, and swallows.


Pelican bills are actually able to sense creatures underwater, which is handy if the water is murky and the birds can’t see. Most pelicans will fish in groups. They beat the water with their wings to drive fish into the shallows and then scoop them up with their bills. A hook on their upper mandibles helps them grip slippery food – and sometimes even allows them to nab a large fish, toss it into the air, and swallow it in one gulp!


Although pelicans are some of the heaviest flying birds, each bird’s skeleton only amounts to one tenth of its total body weight – which in some cases can be over 30lbs! Air sacs in their bones give them extra buoyancy. And they also have air sacs beneath the skin on their throat, chest and beneath their wings which are connected to their respiratory system.

Aside from making the birds lighter and helping them float in water, the air sacs also improve flight aerodynamics by smoothing and stiffening the feathers across the abdomen and helping to cushion the impact when they dive for fish.


When pelicans are courting, they open and close their bills to make their gular sacks ripple, strut around, and toss sticks and dried fish up into the air. Their bills and pouches also change color. For example, an Australian’s pelican’s pouch will turn bright pink, the throat turns yellow, and parts of the bill turn bright blue. Different species of pelicans display different color changes, but they are all vivid and beautiful. Both males and females help incubate the eggs (usually 1-3) by standing on them with their completely webbed feet.


Although there’s a lot more that could be said about pelicans, these facts should give anyone a new appreciation for these huge-billed water birds. Fortunately, most pelicans are not endangered, and we can enjoy watching them swoop majestically over the world’s oceans.

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