Eastern Europe (Danube Delta) east to Western Mongolia. Migrates to winter in NE Africa and Iraq east to N India (Sept.-Feb.). Also year-round populations in Africa (south of the Sahara Desert). Single sites in NW India and
S Viet Nam.
Biogeographic Regions: palearctic (Native ); ethiopian (Native )
All S of Sahara except forest area, Somalia and C South Africa; north along Nile to Egypt and west along N coast to E Algeria.
- UNESCO-IOC Register of Marine Organisms
- Clements, J. F., T. S. Schulenberg, M. J. Iliff, D. Roberson, T. A. Fredericks, B. L. Sullivan, and C. L. Wood. 2014. The eBird/Clements checklist of birds of the world: Version 6.9. Downloaded from http://www.birds.cornell.edu/clementschecklist/download/
White, wing feathers black, large bill colored bright yellow and blue and tipped with red, pouch and feet yellow.
Male: 175 cm long; 9-15 kg; bill is 347-471 mm long.
Female: 148 cm long; 5-9 kg; bill is 289-400 mm long.
Average wingspan: 226-360 cm.
Range mass: 5000 to 9000 g.
Other Physical Features: endothermic ; bilateral symmetry
- Brown, L.H., E.K. Urban & K. Newman (1982). The Birds of Africa, Volume I. Academic Press, London.
In Europe, the habitat includes freshwater lakes, deltas, marshes, or swamps; that is, wherever sufficient amounts of reedbeds or grasses exist for nesting. In Africa, the habitat includes lowlands and alkaline or freshwater lakes. This pelican's fishing technique demands shallow, warm water.
Terrestrial Biomes: savanna or grassland
Aquatic Biomes: lakes and ponds; rivers and streams; coastal
Habitat and Ecology
Mainly larger fresh water bodies
Movements and dispersal
Primarily eats fish. In Europe, prefers carp; in Africa, prefers cichlids. Large fish make up 90% of the Great White Pelican diet. The other 10% includes abundant small fish, and, in SW Africa, eggs and chicks of the Cape Cormorant (Phalacrocorax capensis). Estimated daily food requirement of 900-1200 grams (or 2-4 large fish). Feeds in groups, often cooperatively--this is rare among birds. In cooperative feeding, 8-12 pelicans get in a horseshoe formation on the water; they surround and force fish into shallow water, flapping wings and plunging bills to catch the fish along the way. When it catches a fish, the pelican tilts its bill up and swallows the fish whole.
Life History and Behavior
Perception Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic ; chemical
Status: captivity: 51.0 years.
Lifespan, longevity, and ageing
Breeding occurs in spring in temperate zones of Europe; all year round in Africa. This pelican breeds as it lives, in a large colony near water. Male courting behavior includes a display of vivid colors on the gular pouch and a moulted crest. Pair formation, nest site selection, and nest building occurs rapidly (few hours to no more than a week). The nest is on the ground and consists of either a pile of sticks or little more than bare rock. This pelican averages two eggs; incubation of 29-36 days; fledging at 65-75 days. Breeding success rate of .64 chicks per attempt. Sexual maturity at 3-4 years.
Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; oviparous
Evolution and Systematics
V-formation flight of great white pelicans conserves energy by each bird taking advantage of the upwake field made by the wings of the bird in front of them.
"Our results provide empirical evidence that, compared with solo flight, formation flight confers a significant aerodynamic advantage which allows birds [great white pelicans, Pelecanus onocrotalus] to reduce their energy expenditure while flying at a similar speed. In birds flying in formation, each wing moves in an upwash field that is generated by the wings of the other birds in the formation. Modelling has shown that when birds are flying with optimal spacing, a maximal reduction in power can be achieved and total transport costs can be substantially reduced. However, field observations of V formations indicate that birds often shift from their optimal positioning, perhaps in an attempt to maximize the aerodynamic advantage of flight formation, thus reducing the energy saving— so geese, for example, may make an energy saving of only 2.4%.
"In our study, pelicans often had difficulty staying within the formation, particularly when flying at the rear. But even though these birds were regularly adjusting their position, they still achieved a significant energy saving. This saving may be only partly due to effects of the wakes of other birds on the power input that results from formation flight itself. When flying in formation, pelicans appear to beat their wings less frequently and to glide for longer periods. A rough calculation based on our estimates of the proportion of time spent flapping and gliding in formation, and assuming that the overall costs of the glide–flap sequence is the sum of the gliding and flapping components, reveals an actual saving of 1.7–3.4% as a result of wake effects on power input — this value is comparable to that estimated for geese.
"The main benefit of flight formation, which until now has not been recognized, could be that by flying in a vortex wake, pelicans are able to glide for a greater proportion of their total flight time, with the total energy savings of 11.4–14.0% being achieved primarily through this strategy." (Weimerskirch et al. 2001:697)
Learn more about this functional adaptation.
- Weimerskirch H; Martin J; Clerquin Y; Alexandre P; Jiraskova S. 2001. Energy saving in flight formation. Nature. 413: 697-698.
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Pelecanus onocrotalus
Below is the sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species.
See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen.
Other sequences that do not yet meet barcode criteria may also be available.
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Download FASTA File
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Pelecanus onocrotalus
Public Records: 1
Specimens with Barcodes: 2
Species With Barcodes: 1
Large African population of approximately 75,000 pairs. Not globally threatened, although this species is declining slightly in Europe (Danube Delta) due to human activity.
Family Pelecanidae contains 1 genus, 7 species, 12 taxa. Two species are threatened, but none have gone extinct since early 17th century. The family inhabits all regions except Antarctica.
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: least concern
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
Status in Egypt
Regular passage visitor and winter visitor.
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
May eat some commercially important fish, but generally this pelican eats non-commercial fish such as shoalfish and cichlids.
Pouch has been used for tobacco pouches and sheaths. Young pelicans are prized for fat; the oils derived from pelican fat are used for medicine in China and India (to fight rheumatism).
Pelican feathers and skin are used to make leather. Excrement makes for good, cheap fertilizer in third world countries.
Great white pelican
The great white pelican (Pelecanus onocrotalus) also known as the eastern white pelican, rosy pelican or white pelican is a bird in the pelican family. It breeds from southeastern Europe through Asia and in Africa in swamps and shallow lakes.
The great white pelican is a huge bird, with only the Dalmatian pelican averaging larger amongst the pelicans. The wingspan can range from 226 to 360 cm (7.41 to 11.81 ft), with the latter measurement the largest recorded among extant flying animals outside of the great albatrosses. The total length of the great white pelican can range from 140 to 180 cm (55 to 71 in), with the enormous bill comprising 28.9 to 47.1 cm (11.4 to 18.5 in) of that length. Adult males, weigh from 9 to 15 kg (20 to 33 lb), though large races from the Palaearctic are usually around 11 kg (24 lb) with few exceeding 13 kg (29 lb). Females are considerably less bulky and heavy, weighing from 5.4 to 9 kg (12 to 20 lb). Among standard measurements, the wing chord length is 60 to 73 cm (24 to 29 in), the tail is 16 to 21 cm (6.3 to 8.3 in) and the tarsus is 13 to 14.9 cm (5.1 to 5.9 in). The standard measurements from differing areas indicate that pelicans of the species from the Western Palaearctic are somewhat larger in size than ones that reside in Asia and in Africa.
Immature great white pelicans are grey and have dark flight feathers. In flight, it is an elegant soaring bird, with the head held close to and aligned with the body by a downward bend in the neck. In breeding condition the male has pinkish skin on its face and the female has orangey skin. It differs from the Dalmatian pelican by its pure white, rather than greyish-white, plumage, a bare pink facial patch around the eye and pinkish legs. Males are larger than females, and have a long beak that grows in a downwards arc, as opposed to the shorter, straighter beak of the female. The spot-billed pelican of Asia is slightly smaller than the great white, with clear brownish-grey plumage and a paler, duller-colored bill. Similarly, the pink-backed pelican is smaller with brownish-grey plumage, with a light pink to off-grey bill and a pinkish wash to the back.
The great white pelican is well adapted for aquatic life. The short strong legs and webbed feet propel it in water and aid the rather awkward takeoff from the water surface. Once aloft, the long-winged pelicans are powerful fliers, however, and often travel in spectacular V-formation groups.
Distribution and habitat
Great white pelicans are usually birds found in and around shallow, (seasonally or tropical) warm fresh water. Well scattered groups of breeding pelicans occur through Eurasia from the eastern Mediterranean to Vietnam. In Eurasia, fresh or brackish waters may be inhabited and the pelicans may be found in lakes, deltas, lagoons and marshes, usually with dense reedbeds nearby for nesting purposes. Additionally, sedentary populations are found year-round in Africa, south of the Sahara Desert although these are patchy. In Africa, great white pelicans occur mainly around freshwater and alkaline lakes and may also be found in coastal, estuarine areas. Beyond reedbeds, African pelicans have nested on inselbergs and flat inshore islands off of Banc d'Arguin National Park. Migratory populations are found from Eastern Europe to Kazakhstan during the breeding season. More than 50% of Eurasian great white pelicans breed in the Danube Delta in Romania. They like to stay also in the Lakes near Burgas, Bulgaria and in Srebarna Lake in Bulgaria. The pelicans arrive in the Danube in late March or early April and depart after breeding from September to late November. Wintering locations for European pelicans are not exactly known but wintering birds may occur in northeastern Africa through Iraq to north India, with a particularly large number of breeders from Asia wintering around Pakistan. These are birds that are found mostly in lowlands, though in East Africa and Nepal may be found living at elevations of up to 1,372 m (4,501 ft).
The diet of the great white pelican consists mainly of fish. The pelicans leave their roost to feed early in the mornings and may fly over 100 km (62 mi) in search of food, as has been observed in Chad and Mogode, Cameroon. Each pelican needs from 0.9 to 1.4 kg (2.0 to 3.1 lb) of fish every day. This corresponds to around 28,000,000 kg (62,000,000 lb) of fish consumed every year at the largest colony of great white pelicans, on Tanzania's Lake Rukwa, with almost 75,000 birds. Fish targeted are usually fairly large ones, in the 500–600 g (1.1–1.3 lb) weight range, and are taken based on regional abundance. Common carp are preferred in Europe, mullet are preferred in China and Aphanius dispar (a carp) are preferred in India. In Africa, often the commonest cichlids, including many species in the Haplochromis and Tilapia genera, seem to be preferred. The pelican's pouch serves simply as a scoop. As the pelican pushes its bill underwater, the lower bill bows out, creating a large pouch which fills with water and fish. As the bird lifts its head, the pouch contracts, forcing out the water but retaining the fish. A group of 6 to 8 great white pelicans will gather in a horseshoe formation in the water to feed together. They dip their bills in unison, creating a circle of open pouches, ready to trap every fish in the area. Most feeding is cooperative and done in groups, especially in shallow waters where fish schools can be corraled easily, though these pelicans may forage alone as well.
Pelicans are not restricted to fish, however, and are often opportunistic foragers. In some situations they eat chicks of other birds, such as the well documented case off the southwest coast of South Africa. Here breeding Pelicans from the Dassen Island colony predate chicks weighing up to 2 kg (4.4 lb) from the Cape gannet colony on Malgas Island. Similarly, in Walvis Bay, Namibia the eggs and chicks of Cape cormorants are fed regularly to young pelicans. The local pelican population is so reliant on the cormorants, that when the cormorant species experienced a population decline, the numbers of pelicans appeared to decline as well. Great white pelicans also eat crustaceans, tadpoles and even turtles. They readily accept handouts from humans, and a number of unusual items have been recorded in their diet. During periods of starvation, pelicans also eat seagulls and ducklings. The gulls are held under water and drowned before being eaten headfirst. Pelicans will also rob other birds of their prey.
The breeding season commences in April or May in temperate zones, essentially all year around in Africa and begins in February through April in India. Large numbers of these pelicans breed together in colonies. The female can lay from 1 to 4 eggs in a clutch, with two being the average. Nest locations are variable. Some populations making stick nests in trees but a majority, including all those who breed in Africa, nest exclusively in scrapes on the ground lined with grass, sticks, feathers and other material. The young are cared for by both parents. The incubation stage lasts for 29 to 36 days. The chicks are naked when they hatch but quickly sprout blackish-brown down. The colony gathers in "pods" around 20 to 25 days after the eggs hatch. The young fledge at 65 to 75 days of age. Around 64% of young successful reach adulthood, with sexual maturity attained at 3 to 4 years of age. White pelicans are often protected from bird-eating raptors by virtue of their own great size, but eagles, especially sympatric Haliaeetus species, may predate their eggs, nestlings and fledgings. Occasionally, pelicans and their young are attacked at their colonies by mammalian carnivores from jackals to lions. As is common in pelicans, the close approach of a large predaceous or unknown mammal, including a human, at a colony will lead the pelican to abandon their nest in self-preservation. Additionally, crocodiles, especially Nile crocodiles in Africa, will readily kill and eat swimming pelicans.
Relationships with humans
Today, because of overfishing in certain areas, White pelicans are forced to fly long distances to find food. Great white pelicans are exploited for many reasons. Their pouch is used to make tobacco bags, Their skin is turned into leather, the guano is used as fertiliser, and the fat of young pelicans is converted into oils for traditional medicine in China and India. In Ethiopia, great white pelicans are shot for their meat. Human disturbance, loss of foraging habitat and breeding sites, and pollution are all contributing to the decline of the great white pelican. Declines have been particularly notable in the Palearctic.
The great white pelican is one of the species to which the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (AEWA) applies. The great white pelican is classified as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List 2006 and is listed on Appendices I and II of the Convention on Migratory Species. It is listed on Appendix II of the Berne Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats and on Annex I of the EC Birds Directive. Overall, though, the great white pelican is still the most widely distributed species. Although some areas still hold quite large colonies, it ranks behind the brown pelican and possibly the Australian pelican in overall abundance. Europe now holds an estimated 7,345–10,000 breeding pairs, with over 4,000 pairs that are known to nest in Russia. During migration, more than 75,000 have been observed in Israel and, in winter, over 45,000 may stay in Pakistan. In all its colonies combined, 75,000 pairs are estimated to nest on the African continent.
This species is often kept in captivity, in zoos or in semi-wild colonies such as that in St. James's Park, London. The ancestors of this colony were originally given to Charles II by the Russian Ambassador in 1664 which initiated the tradition of ambassadors donating the birds.
- BirdLife International (2012). "Pelecanus onocrotalus". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 26 November 2013.
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- CRC Handbook of Avian Body Masses by John B. Dunning Jr. (Editor). CRC Press (1992), ISBN 978-0-8493-4258-5.
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- Crawford RJM (2005) Great White Pelican. pp. 614–615 in Hockey PAR, Dean WRJ, Ryan PG (eds.) 2005 Roberts – Birds of Southern Africa, 7th ed. The Trustees of the John Voelcker Bird Book Fund, Cape Town.
- Life, BBC TV series
- Ryan, P. (Feb–Mar 2007). "Going, going, Gannet...Tough times for Benguela Seabirds". African Birds & Birding: 30–35.
- Nancy McLean THE GREAT WHITE PELICAN (Peleconus onothotations). northwestwildlife.com
- Crocodiles and Alligators. Charles A. Ross and Stephen Garnett (Eds.). Checkmark Books (1989), ISBN 978-0-8160-2174-1
- "Landscape History of St. James's Park". Retrieved 30 December 2008.