The Pelican Brief

Friday, 17 March 2023

  • Estimated reading time 2min

14 of the most commonly asked pelican questions answered by BirdLife Australia’s pelican proponent

Pelicans are much-loved in Australia and known for their unmistakable large bills, pouches, and long wingspan.

Despite their distinct appearance, we surprisingly know very little about them. So, if you’re pelican-curious, read on for answers to the 14 most-commonly asked questions about this iconic bird courtesy of Deb Sullivan, BirdLife Australia’s pelican proponent and person in charge of the 2023 Great Pelican Count.

Register to take part in the Great Pelican Count here, or donate to BirdLife Australia to support our mission to save Australian birds.

1. Are pelicans native to Australia?

There are eight species of pelicans found around the world. The Australian Pelican, found throughout Australia, has the longest bill of any bird in the world.

2. What do pelicans eat?

Pelicans are primarily fish-eaters and can eat a variety of fish species depending on their location and habitat.

3. How do pelicans catch fish?

Pelicans across the world use a variety of techniques to catch their food. Most species use their large beak to scoop up fish, while the Brown Pelican from America is the only pelican species to dive for their food.

A pelican catching small fish near the lakes edge.
A pelican catching small fish near the lakes edge. Photographed by: William Shields

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.

4. What are the different types of pelicans?

There are eight species of pelicans worldwide:

    • the Australian Pelican,
    • Brown Pelican,
    • Peruvian Pelican,
    • Great White Pelican,
    • Dalmatian Pelican,
    • American White Pelican,
    • Spot-Billed Pelican,
    • and Pink-Backed Pelican.

5. Where do pelicans live in Australia?

The Australian Pelican is found throughout Australia, New Guinea and eastern Indonesia, with occasional reports in New Zealand and western Pacific islands. They are widespread on freshwater, estuarine and marine wetlands and waterways, including lakes, swamps, rivers, coastal islands and shores.

6. How do pelicans fly?

Pelicans are skilled fliers and use thermals to soar in the air. Their skeletal system is very light compared to their overall body mass and have subcutaneous air sacks to assist with flying. They also flap their wings to gain altitude and can fly long distances.

7. Why do pelicans have big beaks?

Pelicans have big beaks to catch and hold fish. Their beaks can expand to hold large quantities of fish in their pouches.

8. What is the purpose of the pelican pouch?

The pelican pouch serves as a net to catch and hold fish while the pelican is swimming. The pouch can expand to hold large quantities of fish and then contracts to allow the pelican to swallow the fish.

 9. How long do pelicans live?

The lifespan of a pelican can vary by species. The Australian Pelican typically lives between 10-25 years in the wild.

10. What eats an Australian Pelican?

There are a few predators that may eat an Australian Pelican including invasive predators such as foxes and cats as well as native predators such as White-bellied Sea-Eagles and crocodiles. Invasive species predation is a real threat to pelicans.

11. What is a group of pelicans called?

A group of pelicans is called a “brief”, “squadron” or a “pod.” This collective noun is often used to describe a group of pelicans when they are flying or swimming together. Pelicans are social birds and often congregate in large groups for feeding and breeding purposes.

12. Why don’t I ever see a pelican chick?

Pelican chicks remain in a “pelican creche” until they are almost as big as an adult! During this period, they are fed by their parents. By the time they are ready to leave the creche and their natal site they have grown to be as big as their parents.

13. How many eggs do pelican’s lay?

Two or three eggs are laid two or three days apart. Both parents share incubation for 32–35 days. Pelicans practice siblicide, which means that only one chick typically survives to the fledgling stage.

14. How can I help protect pelicans?

Sadly, pelicans are facing growing threats from climate change, habitat destruction, pollution, human disturbance and predation by introduced species.

You can help protect pelicans by supporting conservation efforts like the Great Pelican Count, an annual citizen scientist event that invites people of all ages and abilities to survey pelicans.

Register to take part in the Great Pelican Count here, or donate to BirdLife Australia to support our mission to save Australian birds.