Information about Pelicans


Pelicans (Lat.: Pelecanus) are a family and genus of water birds in the order of Pelicaniformes. They can be found on all continents except for Antarctica. They are unmistakably characterized by their beaks with extensible throat pouches an their body shape.

Pelicans are rather large water birds, with the largest species, the Dalmatian Pelican, reaching up to 170cm (66,92 inches) in length, a maximum 3,5 metres (11 ft) in wingspan and a weight of up to 13 kg (29 pounds). This makes the Dalmatian Pelican one of the largest and heaviest birds capable of flight. The smallest species, the Brown Pelican is about 120-130 cm in length and about 2 metres (6 ft) in wingspan and weighs about 4 kg (9 pounds). The skeleton weight acoounts 6-8% of total body weight in heavy pelicans. Their body temperature is about 42 degrees centigrade (107-108 Fahrenheit), while the entire body is well supplied with blood. This is e.g. evident in the feed - pelicans can stand on icy surfaces for hours. After many hours, their feet still feel very warm to the touch.

Although pelicans are rather robust birds, a few species-specific things have to be taken into account in order to keep them in good health. Peruvian Pelicans and Brown Pelicans are a case in point. Both species are salt-water pelicans who live exclusively on the coasts, are used to salty air and feed of salt-water fish only. As a result these species are extremely sensitive to air quality changes. They should not be kept in very dry or "stale" air and ideally be given a chance to go outside at least once a day of a short period even in winter. The ideal temperature in the zoo winter habitat should be 10-15 degrees Celsius and can of course be higher due to sunlight. The strewing should by no means be damp or wet as this can lead to mildew infestation of the straw. Inhalation of mould spores can lead to Aspergillosis (fungi infection of the respiratory tree) in the pelicans which in the worst case can lead to death despite antifungal treatment.

Naturally, the other pelican species can also get infected but the salt-water-pelicans are particularly susceptible. Their health can be fortified by sufficient daylight exposure (vitamin D), enough exercise in fresh air (intensified oxygen inhalation) which strengthens the airways, and a calm, stress-free routine.

The pelican feature that probably stands out most is the beak that can reach 50 cm (1.75 ft) in large species, with its extremely extensible throat pouch that in the case of a Dalmatian Pelican can hold about 13 litres (3.4 gal) of water.

Pelicans are extremely good thermal updraft gliders who can effortlessly fly 24 hours non-stop while covering 500-600 km (300-400 miles). Their flight speed can reach 60 km/h almost 40 miles per hour and they can fly at an altitude of over 3,000 metres (almost 10,000 ft). In flight, pelicans arch back their necks so that the head rests between the shoulders and the beak can be supported by the neck. Pelicans are energy-efficient aviators as they make excellent use of updraft and alternate between strokes of their wings and long gliding phases. Also, their muscles wouldn’t allow for constant wing-flapping.

As gracefully as pelicans move in the air as awkward it is for them to become airborne. They have to cover a rather long distance on the water surface or land flapping their wings until they can take off. In the water, just like in the air they are a pleasure to watch. Pelicans are excellent swimmers, strongly propelled by the legs set widely apart and located far at the back of the body. However, this constellation leads to a waddling and clumsy gait on land.

Pelicans inhabit tropical, subtropical and temperate climate zones. In Europe, populations of the Dalmatian and Great White Pelican are found on the Balkans and the Danube Delta. Russia also has a few incidences of both species. Spot-billed Pelicans occur in western and central Asia. The Pink-backed Pelican inhabits tropical and subtropical regions of Africa. The Great White Pelican also occurs in Africa, with breeding habitats stretching from the Sahel to South Africa. 

Australian Pelicans are native to Australia, New Zealand and Tasmania, while the  American While Pelican breeds preferentially in the American Midwest and southern Canada and spends winters on the coasts of North and Central America. Brown Pelicans are native to the East and West Coast of America and the Cuban coasts. The Peruvian Pelican breeds and lives on the coasts of Chile and Peru. Both these salt-water pelicans spend the entire year exclusively on the coast.

However, most pelican species prefer fresh water and are to be found mostly at shallow inland water as they can’t dive very deep. The only truly frost-resistant species is the Dalmatian Pelican that can deal with extreme cold but needs ice-free bodies of water to survive. Most pelicans are resident birds or short-distance migratory birds. The latter is true of the tropical species and the Dalmatian Pelicans in the Danube Delta. However, the Great White Pelicans in the Danube Delta are long-distance migrants that migrate to African habitats after the breeding season.

The diet of all pelicans consists mainly of fish, while the larger species may occasionally prey a small duck or pigeon. In addition, pelicans also catch small crustaceans. The Brown Pelican mostly feeds on a species of herring considered unimportant commercially, as well as sardelles and sardines. As a rule, pelicans eat about 10% of their body weight per day.

Pelicans nest in colonies, with ground breeders forming larger and denser colonies than tree breeders.  There are mixed colonies as well, with Great White Pelicans and Dalmatian Pelicans breeding on the ground together. Pelicans breeding on trees often mix with storks and cormorants. Salt water pelicans are often found breeding near Peruvians Boobies and Guanay Cormorants.

Great white Pelican nestlings have black downs while the down of all other pelican species is white or greyish white.

In the past, pelican colonies had millions of birds while today the largest colony comprises of a mere 40,000 breeding couples. In temperate climates, breeding season starts in spring for the European and North American species, while in tropical climates there is no definite breeding season, with pelicans breeding year-round. In mating time, all species change to more intensely coloured plumage and patches of skin, and the males try to attract the females with a kind of mating dance.

Nesting differs for tree- and ground-nesting species. The ground nesters line a shallow depression with grass and twigs while the tree nesters make a nest from branches and line it with grass and reed. Tree nests can reach 75 cm (30 inches) in diameter and 30-40 cm (11-16 inches) in height. Tree-top nests are not very stable and have to be rebuilt every year. Females lay 1-6 eggs, but usually only the strongest hatchling survives. This is due to the amount of food supplied by the parents, which as a rule doesn’t feed all hatchlings. The strongest usually claims it all and pushes the siblings out of the nest. Hatchlings fledge after about 70-85 days and leave the nest immediately, or after three weeks at the latest. By the way, both pelican parents take turns incubating.  

In the wild, pelicans live to around 25-30 years, and a documented maximum of 60 years in captivity. Pelicans have been around since prehistoric times, with the first fossile evidence for the Pelecanus gracilis dating back to the Miocene strata in today’s France (which started 23 million years ago and ended 5.3 million years ago). The Pelecanus intermedius whose fossile remains are frequently found in Germany emerged somewhat later. Australia seems to have been the home of  Pelecanus tirarensis at the time, a small species of pelican. The American White Pelican was first recorded in the Pliocene epoch that started 5.3 million years ago and ended  2.6 million years ago. Remains of several species we are familiar with today including the Dalmatian Pelican, then widespread in Western Europe, date back to the Pleistocene that lasted from about 2,588,000 to about 9,660 years ago.  Occasionally mentioned is the New Zealand Pelican which is probably identical with the Australian Pelican.

Pelicans can be divided into three groups: Australian, Dalmatian, American White and great white Pelicans belong to the large pelicans that live in populous colonies and nest on the ground.  Spot-billed Pelicans (Grey Pelicans) and Pink-backed Pelicans are smaller pelicans that live in lose communities and nest in trees. The third group are the salt-water pelicans (Peruvian pelican and Brown Pelican) who, being plunge-diving marines, are very distinct from the other species.

Pelicans are among the locally threatened species. While in the past they were threatened by hunting fishermen in Europe and killed for “medicinal purposes“ or for making bags and cases from their pouches in Asia, today the main danger is the overfishing of their habitats and the drainage or poisoning of bodies of water.  A positive example was reported from Inida where Grey Pelicans next on house roofs in the state of Karnataka and locals use the birds’ excrements as fertilizer and sell the surplus. Here, pelicans are not just tolerated but even protected!

At present, only Spot-billed Pelicans (Grey Pelicans) and Dalmatian Pelicans are considered threatened. While Great White Pelicans are threatened in Europe, they have healthy populations in Africa and therefore cannot be considered an endangered species.

Pelicans also feature in mythology. The pelican is part of Christian iconography, where it is depicted opening its chest with its beak trying to bring its dead young back to life. This became a symbol of the self-sacrifice of Christ. Pelican depictions are also found on religious items like the chalice.

The pelican also features in heraldry. The Brown pelican is the state bird of the US state of Louisiana. The state seal and flag depict a mother pelican wounding her breast to feed her young from the blood.  Exactly the same motif features in the coat of arms of the French city of Arbois. Pelicans can also be found in the coats of arms of Barbados, the Turks and Caicos Islands (British territories in the Atlantic), and on the flag of Sint Maarten (Caribbean island). In Germany, the pelican is the heraldry charge of the town of Luckenwalde in the state of Brandenburg, located south of Berlin.


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