Pelecanus onocrotalusgreat white pelican

Geographic Range

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.


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.

  • Aquatic Biomes
  • lakes and ponds
  • rivers and streams
  • coastal

Physical Description

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
    176.21 to 317.18 oz


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.



Lives, breeds, migrates, feeds, and formation flies in large colonies. Fishing takes up a very small portion of the pelican's day, as most individuals are done feeding by 8-9 am. The rest of the day is spent loafing, preening, and bathing, activities that are carried out on sandbars or small islands. The bird bathes by ducking head and body in water while flapping wings. The pelican will gape or spread its wings when hot as a form of thermoregulation. When defending its territory, a male will threaten intruders by gaping, clapping its bill, bowing; the pelican will attack with the bill as its main weapon.

Communication and Perception

Food Habits

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.

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

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.

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

May eat some commercially important fish, but generally this pelican eats non-commercial fish such as shoalfish and cichlids.

Conservation Status

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.


Ryan Fawkes (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.



living in sub-Saharan Africa (south of 30 degrees north) and Madagascar.

World Map


living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.

World Map


uses sound to communicate

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


the nearshore aquatic habitats near a coast, or shoreline.


animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


uses touch to communicate

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.


A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.


uses sight to communicate


del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Sargatal, J. eds. (1992). Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 1: 290-309. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.

Grzimek, B. ed. (1974). Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia. Vol. Birds I: 164-165. Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York.

Perrins, C.M. & Middleton, A.L.A. eds. (1985). The Encyclopedia of Birds. Equinox, Oxford.pp. 52- 56.