Category: Birds

Although not the most beautiful or graceful of birds, the pelican can be found in many areas of mythology from ancient Egypt to Medieval Christianity. In these diverse cultures, the birds are always portrayed in a positive way, as caring and protective. In modern times, several countries, including Barbados and Romania, have pelicans as their national bird and they can be found on University seals in the United States.



Scientific & Common Names

Kingdom - Animalia

Phylum - Chordata

Class - Aves

Order - Pelecaniformes

Family - Pelecanidae

Genus – Pelecanus

Species – P. thagus, P. erythrorhynchos, P. rufescens, P. conspicillatus , P. occidentalis, P. crispus, P. philippensis, P. onocrotalus

Common Names – Great White Pelican, Australian Pelican, Pink Backed Pelican, American White Pelican, Brown Pelican, Dalmatian Pelican, Gray Pelican, Peruvian Pelican


Pelicans are an easily identifiable water bird due to their large beaks with pouches that distend to capture large prey. One of their closest living relatives is the shoebill, so they have quite a bit of competition for oddest beak. With eight living species, they are distributed across the globe from tropical to temperate zones, although none can be found in the polar regions. They are one of the heaviest birds still capable of flight and use various techniques to help them cover long distances, including the 'V' formation most closely associated with migrating geese.


The four light plumaged species nest on the ground, while three of the brown or grey plumaged species nest in trees. The fourth darker bird - the Peruvian - nests in rocky areas near water. Pelicans are mostly monogamous, but only for one breeding cycle and they nest communally.


Pelicans travel in large flocks and can be loud and boisterous. They feed by skimming the water's surface and then sifting through the water for edible treats, including turtles, crustaceans, and other birds, but primarily fish. While immature pelicans will often vocalize, adults rarely make much noise and they rely on visual cues to communicate.


Fossil evidence of modern pelicans date back 30 million years and seem to indicate that there has been little change in the basic design of their bills. Most fossil evidence has been found in Europe, indicating that the birds evolved first in the old world and then migrated to the Americas.

Present Status

The Great White Pelican, Pelecanus onocrotalus, the American White Pelican, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos, the Pink Backed Pelican, Pelecanus rufescens, the Australian Pelican, Pelecanus conspicillatus, and the Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, are considered of least concern mostly due to their large distribution. The Dalmatian Pelican, Pelecanus crispus, is considered vulnerable and efforts are underway - especially in Greece - to protect the bird. The Gray Pelican, Pelecanus philippensis, is considered near threatened but the species is doing better in some areas, especially India, where conservation has increased. The Peruvian Pelican, Pelecanus thagus, is considered near threatened primarily due to damage done to their numbers during the 1998 El Nino, although their population is showing some increase.


  1. International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN)

  2. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)

  3. Encyclopedia of Life

  4. Nesting Birds of the Coastal Islands: A Naturalist's Year on Galveston Bay by John C. Dyes

  5. Essential Ornithology by Graham Scott