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Overview

Brief Summary

Biology

Spot-billed pelicans nest in colonies, usually in old trees; returning to the same trees and the same position each year. The breeding season is dependent on the rains, but on the Indian subcontinent pairs begin to construct their nests in September (4). The clutch of around two to three eggs is laid from October to November and the chicks fledge around three months after laying (4). Enormous colonies have been recorded in the past, when hundreds of birds nested in the same area of the forest, with up to 15 nests per tree (4). Little is known about the feeding ecology of these pelicans; individuals appear to mainly hunt for fish prey on a solitary basis (4).
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Description

The spot-billed pelican is relatively small with the typically large bill that characterises this family of waterbirds. These birds have large, expandable throat pouches which are used to scoop up fish from the surface of the water (3). As their common name suggests, these pelicans possess a spotted bill; the throat pouch is also spotted in appearance (2). The plumage is dusky grey and the crown is tufted at the back of the head (2).
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Distribution

Range Description

Pelecanus philippensis was formerly common across much of Asia, but suffered a widespread decline (BirdLife International 2001). However, owing to protection and increased knowledge its estimated population has been revised upwards from a low of 5,500-10,000 birds in 2002 to an estimated 13,000-18,000 individuals in 2006. Known breeding populations are now confined to India, Sri Lanka and Cambodia. The Indian population is thought to exceed 5,000 birds in the south owing to increases resulting from improved protection of the species (S. Subramanya in litt. 2006), plus c.3,000 in Assam (Choudhury 2000). In southern India there are 21 known breeding colonies in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu (Subramanya 2006). One of these at Kokkare Bellur, Karnataka, has doubled in size in recent years (Subramanya 2006). However, another at Uppalapadu has declined from a historical high of 12,000 individuals, with only 1,500 observed in a recent count. The site is threatened by human encroachment (M. Akhtar in litt. 2008). In Sri Lanka, c.5,000 birds were thought to breed, possibly overlapping with the southern Indian populations (S. W. Kotagama in litt. 2001). However, recent evidence from Sri Lanka suggests a breeding population of fewer than 1,000 pairs, with counts from the three known colonies totalling just 400 pairs (C. Kaluthota in litt. 2006). In South-East Asia, an estimated 1,000-1,500 breeding pairs (T. Clements in litt. 2007) occur at Prek Toal on the Tonle Sap lake. This population is thought to be increasing following protection of breeding birds at the site beginning in 2002 (T. Clements in litt. 2007). It probably breeds in small numbers on Sumatra, Indonesia, but probably no longer in Myanmar (G. Chunkino in litt. 2006, Weerakoon and Athukorala 2007). There are recent records of migrants in Nepal, Laos and Vietnam, but it no longer occurs in the Philippines and China. Numbers recorded in Thailand have increased in recent years (P. Round in litt. 2006). This is thought to be as a result of improved protection of the nesting colonies in Cambodia. A juvenile, presumably a vagrant, individual has recently been recorded on Amami-Oshima Island, Japan (Hisahiro et al. 2010).

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Pelecanus philippensis, also known as spot-billed pelicans, can only be found in Southeast Asia over a range of territory between 129,000 and 181,000 square kilometers. The largest remaining populations are in India, Sri Lanka, southern Cambodia, and Sumatra along coastal areas. Pelecanus philippensis has also historically been sighted in Java, Pakistan, Nepal, Turkey, Laos, China, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Breeding, however, is currently confined to Sri Lanka, parts of southeastern India, and Cambodia.

Biogeographic Regions: oriental (Native )

  • BirdLife International, 2004. "2004 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: Pelecanus philippensis" (On-line). Accessed November 15, 2005 at www.redlist.org.
  • Birdlife International, 2005. "BirdLife International Species factsheet: Pelecanus philippensis" (On-line). Accessed November 15, 2005 at www.birdlife.org.
  • Hutchins, M., J. Jackson, W. Bock, D. Clendorf. 2003. Grzimek’s Animal Life Encyclopedia, 2nd ed.. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group.
  • Johnsgard, P. 1993. Cormorants, Darters, and Pelicans of the World. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.
  • Stattersfield, A., D. Capper. 2000. Threatened Birds of the World. Birdlife International: Cambridge, UK.
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Range

Lowlands of India to SE Asia and Philippines.
  • 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

Previously common and widespread in Asia, the spot-billed pelican was known from Pakistan to Vietnam (4). Over the 20th century however, this species has suffered a dramatic decline and breeding populations are today confined to India, Sri Lanka and Cambodia (4).
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Physical Description

Morphology

Spot-billed pelicans are relatively small pelicans. Mature pre-breeding spot-billed pelicans are generally gray dorsally, blending to white ventrally with a fairly long brownish gray crest. The eye-ring and most facial skin is an orange-yellow color, though the skin in front of each eye is bright purple. The wings are grey with dark brown to black tips and dull white to slightly pink undersides. The bill is a pinkish to orange-yellow color with large bluish black spots or smears on the sides and a dull purple pouch that is also blotched with bluish black. Pelicans in general are easily identified in the field by their unique bill pouch, which can stretch while fishing to hold almost three gallons of water in the larger pelican species. Spot-billed pelicans also have fully-webbed feet and legs of very dark brown to black skin. After breeding season ends, mature spot-billed pelicans lose some of the brilliance in their facial coloring, becoming more dull. The crest also diminishes in size. When newly hatched, spot-billed pelican nestling are initially naked with light skin, quickly growing a white down layer. As juveniles they develop a brown color. Bill-spots begin to develop at approximately six months but are still indistinct until the molt into adult plumage begins in their third year. At this point, approximately 30 months of age, the identifying facial and bill marks become well defined. The change from brown juvenile to grey and white adult plumage is usually complete by autumn of the third year, just in time for the breeding season. Male spot-billed pelicans are slightly larger than females. The basal metabolic rate has not been investigated.

Range mass: 4100 to 5700 g.

Range length: 2.85 to 3.55 m.

Range wingspan: 5.25 to 6.07 m.

Other Physical Features: endothermic ; homoiothermic; bilateral symmetry

Sexual Dimorphism: male larger; ornamentation

  • Del Hoyo, J., A. Elliott, J. Sargaral. 1992. Handbook of the Birds of the World VI: Ostrich to Ducks. Barcelona, Spain: Lynx Edicions.
  • Hoagstrom, C. 2002. Magill’s Encyclopedia of Science Animal Life. Pasadena, CA: Salem Press, Inc..
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Ecology

Habitat

Pelecanus philippensis lives in lowland freshwater, brackish, and marine wetland areas of Southeast Asia, mainly near open water. Spot-billed pelicans hunt for food in both freshwater and marine environments, sometimes diving slightly below the surface but never to any great depth. During the breeding season these pelicans require large trees for nesting with a preference for bare or dead trees.

Habitat Regions: tropical ; terrestrial ; saltwater or marine ; freshwater

Aquatic Biomes: lakes and ponds; coastal ; brackish water

Wetlands: swamp

Other Habitat Features: estuarine

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Habitat and Ecology

Habitat and Ecology
It inhabits a variety of deep and shallow wetlands, both man-made and natural, freshwater and saline, open and forested. It breeds colonially in tall trees or palms and feeds in open water, primarily on fish. Some populations appear to be sedentary.


Systems
  • Terrestrial
  • Freshwater
  • Marine
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These birds inhabit a variety of wetlands, from freshwater to saline, in open or forested areas (2).
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Trophic Strategy

Spot-billed pelicans are carnivorous and eat a diet of mainly fish, but which is sometimes supplemented by small reptiles, amphibians, and aquatic crustaceans. Spot-billed pelicans have an estimated requirement of 1000g of food daily. Pelicans use their unique beaks to fish, diving from above to skim the water or simply dipping their heads and necks below the water, collecting fish using their large, expandable bill-pouches. They then hold the fish in their pouches just long enough to squeeze out the water from the corners of their mouthes before swallowing their meals.

Animal Foods: amphibians; reptiles; fish; aquatic crustaceans

Primary Diet: carnivore (Piscivore )

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Associations

Spot-billed pelicans are predators of small to medium-sized fish, amphibians, and reptiles. Young pelicans may also be prey to crows, Brahminy kites, and jackals. There are no known mutualisms or commensalisms involving this species.

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Mature spot-billed pelicans have no predators, however crows, Brahminy kites, and jackals will quickly eat nestlings and fledglings and steal eggs, if they have the opportunity.

Known Predators:

  • Brahminy kites Haliastus indus 
  • crows (Corvus)
  • jackals (Canis aureus)

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Life History and Behavior

Behavior

Spot-billed pelicans are relatively quiet when mature, only calling rarely. As nestlings, however, they have been recorded uttering grunting contact calls, barking, squeaking, and bleating like sheep, making the breeding grounds a much noisier place. In the presence of a perceived threat, however, both young and adults will become silent. Loud noises and large wing movements may be used as scare tactics once a threat makes itself visable. During mating these pelicans use a number of different social signals, both vocal and visual, including bowing, head swaying, bill clapping, head turning, and various moaning, grunting, and high-pitched yipping noises. Mates also greet each other with neck stretching and a duet of groans. Other aspects of communication in spot-billed pelicans have not been studied.

Communication Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic

Other Communication Modes: duets

Perception Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic ; chemical

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Life Expectancy

Little reseach has been done on the lifespan of P. philippensis. Pelecanus occidentalis, the brown pelican, has been recorded to live up to 31 years in the wild and 29 in captivity. Pelecanus erythrorhynchos, the white pelican, has been recorded to live up to 34 years in captivity.

  • Terres, J. 1980. The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. New York: Alfred. A. Knopf, Inc..
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Reproduction

Spot-billed pelicans breed seasonally, each nesting pair fledging one clutch per year. Pairs are monogamous by year but not for life. At the beginning of each new breeding season courtship rituals begin anew. Pairing occurs approximately one week after pelicans arrive at their breeding grounds. Spot-billed pelicans use a number of different social signals in courtship, both vocal and visual, including bowing, head swaying, bill clapping, head turning, and various moaning, grunting, and high-pitched yipping noises. The pair, once formed, will begin to build their nest. The male brings sticks to the female, who builds the nest underneath her, anywhere from 5 to 30 meters above ground in the branches of a tree. Up to 15 pairs have been documented with nests in the same tree in a season. These nests, once completed, will be defended with hissing, sighing, and bill-jabbing movements if another bird lands too close. Mates greet each other at the nest with neck stretching and a series of groans.

Mating System: monogamous

Spot-billed pelicans breed once per year during an autumn breeding season. They lay 3 eggs at intervals of 36-48 hours. The eggs are then incubated for an average of 30 days. If all the eggs in a nest are removed or destroyed at the beginning of the season, then a second clutch is laid within a week of their loss. However, if at least one egg remains there will be no replacement clutch. Breeding success is high in this species, with an average of two fledged young per nesting pair. Nestlings, though born helpless, are only fed by their parents for their first few weeks of life. Developing quickly, they are left to fend for themselves within the colony after just a few weeks, scavenging for food within the breeding grounds. Fledging occurs between 60 and 90 days, with the young able to actually hunt on their own at approximately 12 weeks. Spot-billed pelicans reach sexual maturity after 30 months or during their third year.

Breeding interval: Spot-billed pelicans breed once per year.

Breeding season: In Sri Lanka, the breading season extends from December to March or April, but in India the season starts two months earlier, in October.

Average eggs per season: 3.

Average time to hatching: 30 days.

Range fledging age: 60 to 90 days.

Average time to independence: 12 weeks.

Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 30 months.

Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male): 30 months.

Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; seasonal breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; oviparous

The majority of parental investment is in caring for the eggs rather than nestlings. Eggs are well tended by adults against egg predators, who rarely are able to steal eggs unless there is some sort of human disturbance to the nesting area. Although both the male and female take turns incubating their clutch, the female, who seems reluctant to leave the eggs even when pushed off by her mate, does the majority of incubation. After hatching, the young are fluid-fed by both parents for the first week and protected in the nest for the first two to three weeks until they develop the skills to defend themselves. After two to three weeks there is little parental involvement; the nestlings gather at the base of their nesting trees and scavenge for food scraps until fledging. They continue to live within the colony, which offers them some safety from predators and the food scraps they need to survive. Little direct parenting is provided once the nestlings leave the nest.

Parental Investment: altricial ; pre-fertilization (Provisioning, Protecting: Female); pre-hatching/birth (Provisioning: Male, Female, Protecting: Male, Female); pre-weaning/fledging (Provisioning: Male, Female, Protecting: Male, Female)

  • Hoagstrom, C. 2002. Magill’s Encyclopedia of Science Animal Life. Pasadena, CA: Salem Press, Inc..
  • Hutchins, M., J. Jackson, W. Bock, D. Clendorf. 2003. Grzimek’s Animal Life Encyclopedia, 2nd ed.. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group.
  • Johnsgard, P. 1993. Cormorants, Darters, and Pelicans of the World. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.
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Conservation

Conservation Status

IUCN Red List Assessment


Red List Category
NT
Near Threatened

Red List Criteria

Version
3.1

Year Assessed
2012

Assessor/s
BirdLife International

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

Contributor/s
Chan, S., Chunkino, G., Clements, T., Kaluthota, C., Kotagama, S., Li, Z., Mahood, S., Round, P. & Subramanya, S.

Justification
This species has declined at a moderately rapid rate owing to a number of threats. For this reason the species is classified as Near Threatened.


History
  • Near Threatened (NT)
  • Near Threatened (NT)
  • Vulnerable (VU)
  • Vulnerable (VU)
  • Vulnerable (VU)
  • Vulnerable (VU)
  • Vulnerable (VU)
  • Threatened (T)