Pelecanus conspicillatusAustralian pelican

Geographic Range

Australian pelicans (Pelecanus conspicillatus) are native to Australia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Timor-Leste and vagrant to Fiji, Nauru, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Palau, and Vanuatu. ("BirdLife International", 2010)


Australian pelicans live very close to water in coastal inlets, shorelines, lakes, swamps and rivers of the interior. They will reside in almost any area that supports a large abundance of fish, but their major habitat is the marine intertidal zone including sandy shoreline, sandbars and spits. ("BirdLife International", 2010)

  • Aquatic Biomes
  • lakes and ponds
  • rivers and streams
  • coastal
  • Average elevation
    0 m
    0.00 ft
  • Average depth
    0 m
    0.00 ft

Physical Description

Australian pelicans are one of the largest flying birds. They feature a wingspan of 2.3 to 2.5 m and can weigh from 4 to 6.8 kg. They have the longest bill length of any extant bird ranging from 36 to cm. The average bill length of males is between 42 and 46 cm and in females from 36 to 41 cm. Between the bones on the lower bill is a stretchy patch of skin called the gular pouch. The gular pouch will stretch when it is filled with water and can hold up to three gallons. Pelicans also have a large nail on the tip of the upper part of the bill. They have short legs and large feet with webbing between all four toes.

Non-breeding adults have primarily white plumage. The lower back, primary wing feathers are all black. These pelicans have dark brown eyes. The bill is light pink, as is the gular pouch. The beak can also feature a dark blue stripe and the nail on the tip of the bill is yellow to orange. Their legs, feet and webbing are grey to blue-grey.

Juvenile Australian pelicans are primarily brown in color. The plumage on the head can vary from white to brown. The bill and the gular pouch are a light pink in color. Unlike non-breeding adult Australian pelicans the feet and legs are brownish grey in color instead of blueish grey.

Sexual dimorphism in this species only applies to size not plumage. Males are larger than females, but the plumage in both sexes is identical. (Christie, 2003; Johnsgard, 1993; Vestjens, 1997)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • male larger
  • Range mass
    4 to 6.8 kg
    8.81 to 14.98 lb
  • Range length
    1.6 to 1.9 m
    5.25 to 6.23 ft
  • Range wingspan
    2.3 to 2.5 m
    7.55 to 8.20 ft


Australian pelicans breed in large colonies, usually on islands or inland where there are few predators. Pelicans are seasonally monogamous, meaning that every breeding season they pair up with a mate and then stay with that mate for the rest of the season. The following breeding season they may or may not be with the same mate.

Courtship occurs when the local breeding population gathers at the breeding site. The large group breaks away into smaller groups consisting of a single female and two or more males. Within these smaller groups, males compete against one another for the attention of the female. Females lead the males in her group on courtship walks, swims, and flights, all the while the males display for her. The subordinate males will slowly break away and join other groups. Generally by the end of the ritual, only one male will remain. The pair will then land and begin designating a nesting site.

While the female pelican sits on the nest site, the male will perform a ritualistic display which may be followed with copulation. In order to mate the male must get on the female's back and then copulation will last from 6 to 22 seconds. They will mate several times over several hours. In between copulations the male will stand next to the female while she starts building the nest. Only after several copulations will the couple begin foraging for nest materials away from the nest. (Johnsgard, 1993; Vestjens, 1997)

Breeding usually occurs in winter or early spring, but may occur at any point in the year. Timing of breeding season is dependent upon rainfall and usually after rain events.

Australian pelicans lay approximately two, 172.9 g eggs per season, but clutch size can vary from 1 to 3. The eggs are elliptical in shape and range from 90 by 59 mm in size. Incubation lasts 32 to 35 days. At the time of hatching birds are altricial, feather-less and with eyes closed. In multi-egg nests, often one chick out-competes the others and is the sole survivor. After chicks leave the nest, they join large groups of up to 100 chicks also known as 'creches'. Chicks remain in these groups until they reach 2 months of age and are able to fly. Chicks do not reach independence for four months after hatching, when the parents stop regular feeding. Juvenile Australian pelicans reach sexual maturity at 3 to 4 years old. (Johnsgard, 1993; Vestjens, 1997)

  • Breeding interval
    Australian pelicans breed once a year.
  • Breeding season
    Australian pelicans generally breed from winter to early spring, but can occur any time throughout the year.
  • Range eggs per season
    1 to 3
  • Range time to hatching
    32 to 35 days
  • Average time to hatching
    32 days
  • Average fledging age
    2 months
  • Average time to independence
    4 months
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    3 to 4 years
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    3 to 4 years

After pairs court and mate they then share the responsibilities of nest building, incubation, and feeding their offspring. During nest building both parents collect materials for the nest. Females will remain at the nesting site collecting nearby materials and forming a ground scrape, while the males will fly away as far as a mile to find materials for the nest.

After the eggs are laid, both parents share incubation responsibilities. Parents incubate by cradling the eggs on their feet. After hatching both parents alternate hunting for food. After 25 days chicks leave the nest and form creches and parents are able to leave the chicks alone for extended periods of time.

Australian pelican parents feed their young up to the first four months of the chick’s life. While still in the nest, chicks feed whenever they are hungry. When the chick leaves the nest to join a creche, they will only return to the nest when parents return to feed the chick After feeding, the chick will return to its creche. As the chick gets older the parents will feed their young on the edge of the creche. Once the chick becomes even larger it will leave the creche and join its parents some distance away to be fed. (Johnsgard, 1993; Vestjens, 1997)

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • male parental care
  • female parental care
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • post-independence association with parents


Typically pelicans live between 15 and 25 years in the wild. Pelicans can live longer in captivity; the longest-lived captive Australian pelican was 50 years old. (Beletsky, 2006)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: captivity
    50 (high) years
  • Typical lifespan
    Status: wild
    15 to 25 years
  • Typical lifespan
    Status: captivity
    15 to 25 years


Australian pelicans are highly social, diurnal birds that fly together in groups which can be very large at times. They breed in large colonies of up to 40,000 individuals. They are strong, slow fliers that often glide on thermals to conserve energy. During flight they pull their head inward towards their body and rest it on their shoulders. These birds will travel very long distances in order to find food, and have been known to remain airborne for 24 hours. (Christie, 2003; Johnsgard, 1993)

Home Range

P. conspicillatus are nomadic birds with a very large range. ("BirdLife International", 2010)

Communication and Perception

Adult pelicans have few calls and they rarely use them. Their calls include hissing, blowing, groaning, grunting, or bill-clattering. The young are much more vocal than the adults and will loudly beg for food. Australian pelicans primarily communicate with visual cues using their wings, necks, bills, and pouches, especially in courtship displays. Like all birds, Australian pelicans perceive their environment through visual, auditory, tactile, and chemical stimuli. (Christie, 2003; Johnsgard, 1993; Vestjens, 1997)

Food Habits

Fish is the main bulk of Australian pelicans' diet. They also have been known to eat prawns, amphibians, small reptiles and small mammals. These pelicans eat fish that are between 60 to 247 mm long and weigh 17 to 320 grams. Crustaceans make up a minor part of the diet, but it includes freshwater crayfish and shrimp.

Australian pelicans feed by primarily using a bill thrusting technique commonly used in other pelican species. This technique consists of tipping forward and thrusting their bill underwater to grab fish or other food items. Other times Australian pelicans will scoop the food up with their bills from shallow waters or while swimming and even when they are flying low over the surface of the water. Every so often this species is reported being seen plunging into the water from a meter or so in the air. When flocks group together to forage they corral the fish into shallow or confined areas so that they can be easily captured. Australian pelicans have been described as an opportunistic feeder meaning they will scavenge and even pirate food from other animals. In times of scarce food resources, they will even eat the young of gulls and ducklings. (Johnsgard, 1993; Smith and Munro, 2008; Vestjens, 1997)

  • Animal Foods
  • birds
  • amphibians
  • reptiles
  • fish
  • aquatic crustaceans


Australian pelicans have very few predators, but within ground-nesting breeding colonies the chicks are vulnerable. Australian ravens are common predators of Australian pelican chicks. As are certain mammalian predators such as domestic dogs. Another threat to chicks are courting adults. They will move through the colony and accidentally crush eggs and destroy nests.

Australian pelican chicks' primary anti-predator defense is their formation of creches. These groups can reach sizes of 100 individuals, which may deter predation by numbers alone. (Johnsgard, 1993; Smith and Munro, 2008; Vestjens, 1997)

Ecosystem Roles

Australian pelicans play a role in dispersing plant species across their habitat. They eat fish that eat vegetation in one area. Then when the pelican moves on to another location the plant propagules are transplanted to the new location through the pelican's feces. This allows for the movement of plant species and also recolonization of plant-lacking wetlands. This dispersal can also be problematic because this may allow for the invasion and spread of exotic plant species. (Green, et al., 2008)

Several species of nematodes (Contracaecum pyripapillatum and Contracaecum multipapillatum) use Australian pelicans as hosts. (Shamsi, et al., 2008)

  • Ecosystem Impact
  • disperses seeds
Commensal/Parasitic Species
  • Nematodes Contracaecum pyripapillatum
  • Nematodes Contracaecum multipapillatum

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Pelicans have been symbols of mutual aid and love of fellow human beings. Pelican guano is also used in fertilizer, which can be very beneficial to agricultural economies. Australian pelicans in particular have no significant impact on human beings. (Christie, 2003)

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Australian pelicans can be habituated to human activity quite easily. This can be problematic for humans because these pelicans will directly approach humans to be fed or steal from humans because they are opportunistic feeders. This is also problematic because they get caught on fishing lines and hooks, thus disrupting fishermen's catch. (Christie, 2003)

Conservation Status

Australian pelicans are of least concern because they have a very large range, their population trend is fluctuating, and their population size is very large (between 100,000 and 1,000,000 individuals). ("IUCN", 2009)


Elizabeth Poole (author), Florida State University, Emily DuVal (editor), Florida State University, Rachelle Sterling (editor), Special Projects.



Living in Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, New Guinea and associated islands.

World Map


uses sound to communicate


young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.

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.


an animal that mainly eats meat


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


the nearshore aquatic habitats near a coast, or shoreline.


used loosely to describe any group of organisms living together or in close proximity to each other - for example nesting shorebirds that live in large colonies. More specifically refers to a group of organisms in which members act as specialized subunits (a continuous, modular society) - as in clonal organisms.

  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.

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.


an area where a freshwater river meets the ocean and tidal influences result in fluctuations in salinity.

female parental care

parental care is carried out by females


union of egg and spermatozoan


mainly lives in water that is not salty.


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).

male parental care

parental care is carried out by males


marshes are wetland areas often dominated by grasses and reeds.


Having one mate at a time.


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.


generally wanders from place to place, usually within a well-defined range.

oceanic islands

islands that are not part of continental shelf areas, they are not, and have never been, connected to a continental land mass, most typically these are volcanic islands.


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


an animal that mainly eats fish


Referring to something living or located adjacent to a waterbody (usually, but not always, a river or stream).

saltwater or marine

mainly lives in oceans, seas, or other bodies of salt water.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


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


associates with others of its species; forms social groups.


a wetland area that may be permanently or intermittently covered in water, often dominated by woody vegetation.


uses touch to communicate


Living on the ground.


the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.


uses sight to communicate


BirdLife International. 2010. "BirdLife International" (On-line). Species factsheet: Pelecanus conspicillatus. Accessed February 04, 2010 at

2009. "IUCN" (On-line). Pelecanus conspicillatus. Accessed February 04, 2010 at

Beletsky, L. 2006. Birds of the World. New York: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Christie, J. 2003. Pelecaniformes (Pelicans and cormorants). Pp. 183-186 in J Jackson, W Bock, D Olendorf, M Hutchins, eds. Grzimek's Animal life Encyclopedia, Vol. 8/BIRDS 1, 2 Edition. New York: Thomson and Gale.

Green, A., K. Jenkins, D. Bell, P. Morris, R. Kingsford. 2008. The potential role of waterbirds in dispersing invertebrates and plants in arid Australia. Freshwater Biology, 53: 380-392. Accessed March 18, 2010 at

Johnsgard, P. 1993. Cormorants, darters, and Pelicans of the World. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Shamsi, S., R. Gasser, I. Beveridge, A. Shabani. 2008. Contracaecum pyripapillatum n. sp. (Nematoda: Anisakidae) and a description of C. multipapillatum (von Drasche, 1882) from the Australian pelican, Pelecanus conspicillatus. Parasitology Research, 103/5: 1031-1039. Accessed March 18, 2010 at

Smith, A., U. Munro. 2008. Cannibalism in the Australian Pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus) and Australian White Ibis (Threskiornis molucca). Waterbirds, 31/4: 632-635.

Vestjens, W. 1997. Breeding Behaviour and ecology of the Australian Pelican, Pelecanus conspicillatus, in New South Wales. Australian Wildlife Research, 4/1: 37-58.