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Overview

Brief Summary

Biology

A social and cooperative bird, the great white pelican fishes in the early morning, spending the remainder of the day preening and bathing. Groups of birds bathe in shallow water, ducking their heads and bodies beneath the surface and flapping their wings. Pelicans may also be seen standing on sandbars and small islands with their wings spread and bills open, to cool down. The great white pelican feeds on large fish, mainly carp in Europe and cichlids in Africa, but is also known to take eggs and chicks of the Cape cormorant (Phalacrocorax capensis) in southwest Africa. Despite evidence suggesting that pelicans take fewer fish when fishing as a group, the great white pelican commonly feeds cooperatively. Between 8 and 12 or more birds form a horseshoe shape, herding fish into shallow water, and plunging their bills to catch the fish along the way. Once a pelican has fish in its pouch, it tilts its head vertically and swallows them whole (2). During the breeding season, the great white pelican male behaves territorially; gaping, clapping its bill and bowing. It may even attack other males using the bill, should they come too close. Breeding takes place in spring in Europe, but is year-round in Africa, and despite the male's defensive behaviour, the birds nest colonially near water. Males display using the head crest and the bright colours of the pouch. Once pairs have formed, a rudimentary nest is built on the ground from sticks (2). The female lays an average of two eggs and incubates them for 31 days (2) (7). The chicks fledge after 75 to 85 days, reaching sexual maturity at three to four years (2) (7). Great white pelicans can live for up to 30 years (2).
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Description

This enormous bird has a spectacular azure blue bill with a central red stripe, and ending in a small, red hook. Beneath the lower jaw of the pelican, and extending to the base of the throat, is a bright yellow, elastic pouch that can hold a large volume of fish. The area of the face from the eye up to the bill is bare and fleshy pink. The head has a white crest of long, bushy feathers. The body feathers are creamy white with black tips to the wings. The feet are yellow and strongly webbed (2).
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Distribution

Old World
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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 )

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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.

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Range

Locally in s-central Eurasia, s Asia and Africa.
  • 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/

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Range

Sedentary populations are found year-round in Africa, south of the Sahara Desert. Migratory populations are found from Eastern Europe to Kazakstan during the breeding season and from northeast Africa through Iraq to north India in the winter. Great white pelicans have also been seen in southern Vietnam (2).
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Physical Description

Morphology

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

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Diagnostic Description

Description

Size: 140-178 cm. Plumage: white; breeding birds have pinkish tinge; back of head with small crest; primaries, secondaries and primary coverts black (noticeable only in flight). Immature mostly grey-brown with some white on back and belly. Bare parts: iris red to red-brown; male facial skin pink to purplish, female facial skin orange; bill yellowish grey with pink edges and yellow pouch; feet and legs pink to yellow. Habitat: coastal bays and estuaries, and inland waters.<388><393><391>
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Ecology

Habitat

Habitat and Ecology

Habitat and Ecology
Behaviour Northern populations of this species are fully migratory (del Hoyo et al. 1992) and travel via important stop-over sites (Nelson 2005). Other populations are sedentary, dispersive (del Hoyo et al. 1992, Nelson 2005) or nomadic, flying over land to seek suitable feeding locations (Nelson 2005). The species nests in large colonies (del Hoyo et al. 1992) of 200 to 40,000 pairs (Brown et al. 1982, Snow and Perrins 1998, Nelson 2005) (occasionally with other species such as Dalmatian Pelican Pelecanus crispus) (Flint et al. 1984), breeding in the spring in temperate zones, in all months of the year in Africa and from February to April in India (del Hoyo et al. 1992). It usually fishes in flocks (del Hoyo et al. 1992) of 8-12 individuals (Brown et al. 1982) (up to 123) (Johnsgard 1993) and migrates in large flocks of 50-500 individuals (Snow and Perrins 1998). The species regularly flies long distances from breeding or roosting colonies to feed (del Hoyo et al. 1992), mostly fishing in the early-morning and early-evening (Johnsgard 1993). Habitat The species is associated with relatively large, warm, shallow fresh, brackish, alkaline or saline lakes, lagoons (del Hoyo et al. 1992, Johnsgard 1993), marshes (del Hoyo et al. 1992), broad rivers (Johnsgard 1993), deltas (del Hoyo et al. 1992, Johnsgard 1993), estuaries and coasts of landlocked seas (Snow and Perrins 1998). The species requires secure areas (Johnsgard 1993, Snow and Perrins 1998) of extensive reedbeds (del Hoyo et al. 1992), wet swamps, mudflats and sandbanks (Nelson 2005) or gravel and rocky substrates (del Hoyo et al. 1992, Johnsgard 1993, Snow and Perrins 1998) for nesting on (del Hoyo et al. 1992, Nelson 2005). Diet The species is entirely piscivorous, preferentially taking fish of between 300 and 600 g in weight (del Hoyo et al. 1992). Breeding site It nests on the ground either on a pile of sticks and vegetation (del Hoyo et al. 1992) or in a simple shallow scrape (Nelson 2005) in single- or mixed-species colonies (e.g. with Dalmatian Pelican Pelecanus crispus) (Flint et al. 1984), with a distance between neighbouring nests of c.70-80 cm (Nelson 2005). It shows a preference for nesting sites that are inaccessible to ground predators (Brown et al. 1982). Management information In the Palearctic Region the installation of floating rafts or wooden platforms as safe nesting sites, and the stabilisation of natural nesting areas by reconstructing islands or installing nylon-encased concrete revetments have been successful measures for increasing breeding success (Crivelli et al. 1991). Erecting markers on electricity powerlines or (preferably) burying the powerlines has been successful in significantly reducing deaths due to collision (Crivelli et al. 1991). Installing a series of horizontal strings spaced at intervals over aquaculture ponds is also a successful measure in preventing the species from depredating farmed fish (Crivelli et al. 1991)..

Systems
  • Terrestrial
  • Freshwater
  • Marine
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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

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Mainly larger fresh water bodies

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The fishing technique of these birds demands the shallow, warm water of lakes, deltas, marshes and swamps. In Europe and Asia the great white pelican is found on freshwater wetlands with abundant reed beds and grasses for nesting. In Africa the great white pelican is also found in alkaline lakes (2).
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Dispersal

Movements and dispersal

Resident

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Trophic Strategy

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.

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Life History and Behavior

Behavior

Perception Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic ; chemical

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Life Expectancy

Average lifespan

Status: captivity:
51.0 years.

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Lifespan, longevity, and ageing

Maximum longevity: 51 years (captivity)
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Reproduction

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

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Evolution and Systematics

Functional Adaptations

Functional adaptation

V-formation saves energy: great white pelican
 

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.
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Molecular Biology and Genetics

Molecular Biology

Barcode data: Pelecanus onocrotalus

The following is a representative barcode sequence, the centroid of all available sequences for this species.


There is 1 barcode sequence available from BOLD and GenBank.

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.

CTAGGTCAACCCGGAACCCTCCTAGGAGAC---GACCAAATCTACAATGTAATCGTCACCGCCCATGCCTTCGTAATAATCTTCTTCATAGTAATACCAATCATAATCGGAGGCTTTGGAAACTGACTAGTCCCTCTCATA---ATTGGCGCCCCAGACATAGCATTTCCACGTATAAACAACATAAGCTTCTGACTCCTGCCCCCATCCTTCCTACTCCTACTAGCCTCATCCACAGTAGAAGCAGGCGCAGGAACAGGATGAACCGTATACCCTCCACTAGCTGGCAACCTAGCCCATGCCGGAGCCTCTGTGGACCTG---GCTATCTTCTCACTCCATTTAGCAGGGGTATCCTCTATCCTAGGCGCAATCAACTTCATTACAACCGCTATCAACATAAAACCACCAGCCCTGTCACAATATCAGACACCATTATTCGTGTGATCCGTGCTCATCACCGCCGTTCTACTACTACTATCACTCCCAGTCCTGGCCGCC---GGCATCACTATACTGCTTACAGACCGAAACCTGAACACCACATTCTTCGACCCCGCTGGAGGAGGT
-- end --

Download FASTA File

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Statistics of barcoding coverage: Pelecanus onocrotalus

Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLDS) Stats
Public Records: 1
Specimens with Barcodes: 2
Species With Barcodes: 1
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Conservation

Conservation Status

IUCN Red List Assessment


Red List Category
LC
Least Concern

Red List Criteria

Version
3.1

Year Assessed
2015

Assessor/s
BirdLife International

Reviewer/s
Butchart, S. & Symes, A.

Contributor/s

Justification
This species has a very large range, and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the range size criterion (Extent of Occurrence <20,000 km2 combined with a declining or fluctuating range size, habitat extent/quality, or population size and a small number of locations or severe fragmentation). The population trend is not known, but the population is not believed to be decreasing sufficiently rapidly to approach the thresholds under the population trend criterion (>30% decline over ten years or three generations). The population size is very large, and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population size criterion (<10,000 mature individuals with a continuing decline estimated to be >10% in ten years or three generations, or with a specified population structure). For these reasons the species is evaluated as Least Concern.

History
  • Least Concern (LC)
  • Least Concern (LC)
  • Least Concern (LC)
  • Lower Risk/least concern (LR/lc)
  • Lower Risk/least concern (LR/lc)
  • Lower Risk/least concern (LR/lc)
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