Australian Pelican

Habitat: Wetland, Island, Salt Lake, Coastal


Australian Pelicans are widespread on freshwater, estuarine and marine wetlands and waterways, including lakes, swamps, rivers, coastal islands and shores.


The Australian Pelican often occurs in coastal areas, roosting on sandbanks, rock platforms and reefs, or swimming in shallow waters.

After monsoonal rains flood salt lakes in Australia’s arid interior, pelicans sometimes flock there in their thousands to breed. When it dries out again, they head for more permanent wetlands or the coast. However, recent studies indicate that there may be less movement between the coast and inland wetlands than previously thought.

Pelicans are highly mobile, searching out suitable areas of water and adequate food. They can remain aloft for 24 hours, covering hundreds of kilometres, using thermals to soar to heights of up to 3,000 m.


The Australian Pelican feeds primarily by dipping its large bill into the water to catch fish. Its sensitive bill helps it locate fish in murky water.

Once something is caught, the pelican draws its pouch to its breast to empty the water, then whatever prey is left is manoeuvred so that its head is pointing towards the pelican’s throat, before it is swallowed.

Pelicans have also been seen drinking by opening their bills to collect rainwater.

The Australian Pelican feeds singly or in groups, often cooperatively. The flock works together to drive fish into a concentrated mass, then they herd the fish into shallow water or surround them in ever-decreasing circles.


Breeding depends on environmental conditions, particularly rainfall, and can occur at any time of year.

Pelicans breed in colonies, with sometimes thousands congregating on islands or secluded shores. Breeding begins with a ritualised courtship display, with males following a female around the colony, clapping their bills and picking up small items and tossing them into the air; and a male and female may ripple their pouches together, before she leads him to a nest site.

At this time, the bill and pouch turn bright salmon pink and chrome yellow, with the base of the bill cobalt blue, but it soon fades.

The female prepares the nest, a scrape in the ground lined with scraps of vegetation or feathers. Two or three eggs are laid two or three days apart. Both parents share incubation for 32–35 days. The first-hatched chick is substantially larger than its siblings, and receives most of the food. Mottling on the face of the chick allows the parents to recognise it from hundreds of others.

The chicks leave the nest to form creches of up to 100 birds for about two months.