Types of pelicans (Pelecanidae Family) – Pelicans Bird

Types of pelicans (Pelecanidae Family) – Pelicans Bird

The pelicans, which belong to the Pelecanidae family, are large waterbirds found worldwide. They primarily inhabit warm regions. The diet of a Pelican consists mainly of fish. They often catch the fish by expanding the throat pouch which must be drained above the surface before they can swallow.

They can cool themselves by panting and fluttering their pouch. Pelicans swim well with short, strong legs and feet that have four webbed toes. A layer of special fibers deep in the breast muscles can hold the wings rigidly horizontal for gliding and soaring.

There are eight species of pelicans. Some species catch fish while swimming, while others mainly catch fish by diving from their flights. The males are larger than the females, but they are not differentiated by their plumage.

Some species are mainly white, while others are brown or grey. Some species nest on the ground, others in trees. The preference for ground or tree nesting is a function of species size – the larger ones preferring the ground.

Their dimensions range as follow:

  • length 1.25 to 1.9 m (4.1 – 6.2 ft)
  • wingspan 2.0 to 3.4 m ( 6.6 – 11.2 ft)
  • weight 3.6 to 12 kg (7.9 – 26 lb).


The Pelecanidae family belongs to the Pelecaniformes order which also includes Ardeidae (herons and egrets) and Threskiornithidae (ibises and spoonbills). There are two other families: Balaenicipitidae (shoebill) and Scopidae (hamerkop). Each of these families only contains one species.


The name pelican probably traces back to the ancient Greek eleka which referred to woodpeckers. Woodpeckers are notable for their chisel-like bills while pelicans are noted for their supersized bills.

1. Genus Pelecanus

Pelecanus is the only genus of the Pelecanidae family. There are eight species of pelicans in this genus.

1.1. Australian Pelican, Pelecanus conspicillatus

Australian Pelican Nonbreeding
Nonbreeding (Image: Dick Daniels)
Australian Pelican Breeding
Breeding (Image: Paul Balfe)
  • Description: Mainly white plumage with substantial amount of black on wings. Breeding: orange bill, skin around eyes. Nonbreeding: pink bill, skin around eyes. Juveniles: brown areas instead of black.
  • Length 1.40–1.75 m (4.6–5.7 ft)
  • wingspan 2.45–2.95 m (8.0–9.7 ft)
  • weight 10–11 kg (22–24 lb).

Distribution: Australia, New Guinea, Fiji, parts of Indonesia.

Habitat and Behavior: Found mainly in large expanses of open fresh or salt water without dense aquatic vegetation. Catches fish while swimming. Often works in groups to drive fish to shallower water. Flies in V’s or straight lines.

Status: Least concern.

1.2. Dalmatian Pelican, Pelecanus crispus

Dalmatian Pelican
(Image: Dick Daniels)
Dalmatian Pelican in a flight
(Image: Sizhao)
  • Description: Curly nape feathers; grey legs; black wing tips (visible in flight). Breeding: silver-white plumage; orange-red lower mandible, pouch; yellow upper mandible. Nonbreeding: pale brownish-grey plumage; dull yellow bill. Largest member of pelican family.
  • Length 1.60–1.80 m (5.2–5.9 ft)
  • wingspan 2.70–3.20 m (8.9–10.5 ft)
  • weight 10–12 kg (22–26 lb).

Distribution: Found southeastern Europe to India and China..

Habitat and Behavior: Found in lakes, rivers, deltas and estuaries. During winter, usually stays on ice-free lakes in Europe or seasonal lakes in India. Swims or wades for fish. Nests are crude heaps of vegetation, placed on islands or on dense mats of vegetation.

Status: Near threatened.

1.3. American White Pelican, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

Pelecanus erythrorhynchos
(Image: Dick Daniels)
American White Pelican
(Image: Alan D. Wilson)

Description: Pure white plumage with black wing tips visible in flight; huge bill with a large pouch below. Breeding: bright orange pouch, orbital skin, feet. Nonbreeding: dull yellowish pouch, orbital skin, feet.
Length 1.3–1.8 m (4.3–5.9 ft), wingspan 2.44–2.9 m (8.0–9.5 ft), weight 5–9 kg (22–24 lb).

Distribution: From south-western Canada, through the western United States to Central America and northern South America. Also along the United State Gulf Coast.

Habitat and Behavior: In breeding season nests on islands in fresh water bodies. In winter prefers estuaries or lakes, but may be found on seashores. Avoids open ocean during migration.

Status: Least concern.

1.4. Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis

Brown Pelican
Adult with juvenile (Image: Dick Daniels)
Pelecanus Occidentalis
Pacific subspecies (Image: Alan D. Wilson)

Description: Grey upperparts; brown underparts; white head with yellow wash. Atlantic subspecies: gray or brown pouch; white nape. Pacific subspecies: olive to red pouch; brown nape. Juvenile: brown head, upperparts; white belly. Smallest of the eight species.

  • Length up to 1.4 m (4.6 ft)
  • wingspan 2–2.3 m (6.6–7.5 ft)
  • weight 3.6–4.5 kg (7.9–9.9 lb).

Distribution: Coastal distribution ranging from North America and the Caribbean to northern South America and the Galapagos. Prefers warm climates.

Habitat and Behavior: Prefers shallow waters, especially near salty bays and beaches; avoids the open sea. Dives for fish.

P. o. californicus – Pacific coast from British Columbia to Guatemala.
P. o. carolinensis – Atlantic coast from New York to Venezuela.
P. o. occidentalis – Caribbean to Venezuela.
P. o. murphyi  – Columbia, Ecuador, Peru.
P. o. urinator  – Galapagos Islands

Status: Least concern.

1.5. Great White Pelican, Pelecanus onocrotalus

The great white pelican is also known as the rosy pelican or the white pelican

Pelecanus onocrotalus
(Image: Dick Daniels)
Great White Pelican
(Image: Dick Daniels)

Description: White plumage with black wing tips visible in flight; pink facial patch, legs; huge pink and yellow bill; pale yellow pouch.

  • Length 1.40–1.75 m (4.6–5.7 ft)
  • wingspan 2.45–2.95 m (8.0–9.7 ft)
  • weight 10–11 kg (22–24 lb).

Distribution: Eastern Mediterranean east to Indochina and Malay Peninsula, and south to South Africa.

Habitat and Behavior: Mainly around fresh water, especially shallow areas such as lagoons and marshes. Nests on the ground. Swims or wades for fish.

Status: Least concern.

1.6. Spot-Billed Pelican, Pelecanus philippensis

The spot-billed pelican is also known as the grey pelican or white pelican.

Spot-Billed Pelican
(Image: S. Shankar)
Pelecanus philippensis
(Image: Vijay Ismavel)

Description: Plumage mainly greyish-white; grey crest, nape; spots on upper mandible of its bill; pink orbital patch; brownish tail; pink to purplish pouch with large pale spots.

  • Length 1.27–1.52 m (4.2–5.0 ft)
  • wingspan 2.5 m (8.2 ft)
  • weight c. 5 kg (11 lb)

Distribution: Southern Asia. Breeds in peninsular India, Sri Lanka and in Cambodia.

Habitat and Behavior: Shallow fresh water areas. Nests in colonies choosing low trees near wetlands. Swims or wades for fish.

Status: Least concern.

1.7. Pink-Backed Pelican, Pelecanus rufescens

Pelecanus rufescens
(Image: Dick Daniels)
Pink-Backed Pelican
(Image: Dick Daniels)

Description: Grey and white plumage; pinkish hue on the back occasionally apparent; yellow upper mandible; grey pouch. Breeding: long plumes on the head.

  • Length 1.27–1.52 m (4.2–5.0 ft)
  • wingspan 2.5 m (8.2 ft)
  • weight c. 5 kg (11 lb)

Distribution: Africa, southern Arabia, and southern India.

Habitat and Behavior: Found mainly on lakes, swamps, slow moving rivers. Occasionally found on sheltered coasts. Swims or wades for fish, usually in groups. Mainly roosts and nests in trees, but will also roost on ground.

Status: Least concern.

1.8. Peruvian Pelican, Pelecanus thagus

Peruvian Pelican
(Image: Manuel Franco)
Pelecanus thagus
(Image: Alan Alastair Rae)

Description: Grey-brown upperparts; brown underparts; white head; white neck (brown nape with vertical white stripe when breeding). Juvenile: brown head, upperparts; white belly.

  • Length up to 1.52 m (5.0 ft)
  • wingspan 2.48 m (8.1 ft)
  • average weight 7 kg (15 lb)

Distribution: West coast of South America, from central Chile to northern Peru.

Habitat and Behavior: Prefers shallow waters, especially near salty bays and beaches; avoids open sea. Dives for fish.

Status: Near threatened.

2. Balaenicipitidae Family – Shoebill

The shoebill is a stork-like in appearance, but recent analysis indicates that it is more closely related to the pelicans. However even that is not a close relationship, so this odd looking bird merits a family all to itself. It has a huge shoe-shaped bill, hence the name. It lives in swampy areas of tropial east-central Africa.


The Balaenicipitidae family contains just one species, the shoebill. This family belongs to the Pelecaniformes order which also includes Ardeidae (herons and egrets), Balaenicipitidae (hamerkop), Pelecanidae (pelicans), and Threskiornithidae (ibises and spoonbills). The shoebill used to be placed with the storks in the Ciconiiformes order, but DNA analysis plus microscopic shell analysis now indicate it is closer to the pelicans and also the hamerkop.


This bird has a massive bill that resembles a Dutch wooden shoe, thus the name shoebill.

2.1. Shoebill, Balaeniceps rex

Shoebill, Balaeniceps rex
(Image: Darren Bellerby)
Shoebill, Balaeniceps rex
(Image: Fritz Geller-Grimm)

Description: Mainly blue-gray plumage, huge bill which is straw colored, stock-like dark legs with large feet.

  • Height 110 to 140 cm (43 – 55 in)
  • length 100 to 140 cm (39 – 55 in)
  • wingspan 230 to 260 cm (7 ft 7 in – 8 ft 6 in)
  • weight 4 to 7 kg (8.8 – 15.4 lb).

Distribution: Central tropical Africa from Sudan to Zambia..

Habitat and Behavior: Freshwater swamps and sometimes deeper water with floating vegetation. Tend to move slowly and often stand still. Catches prey by a rapid thrust of its bill. Eats mainly fish, sometimes frogs and snakes. Wary of humans.

Status: Vulnerable.

3. Scopidae Family – Hamerkop

The hamerkop, the only species in its family Scopidae, is also known as the hammerkop or hammerhead. As a medium sized wading bird, most of its food is water based, but they are not fussy eaters. That, plus the fact they are quite tolerant of people helps give them a status of least cocerned.


The Scopidae family belongs to the Pelecaniformes order which also includes Ardeidae (herons and egrets), Balaenicipitidae (shoebill), Pelecanidae (pelicans), and Threskiornithidae (ibises and spoonbills).


From the Afrikaans words hamer (“hammer”) + kop (“head”). Afrikaans is a language of southern Africa which evolved from Dutch. Hamerkop is also spelled as hammerkop.

1.1. Hamerkop, Scopus umbretta

Hamerkop bird
(Image: Sandy Cole)
Scopus umbretta
(Image: Dick Daniels)

Description: Medium sized waterbird with brown plumage;  long flat blackish bill; (brown for juveniles), partially webbed feet.

  • Height 56 cm (22 in)
  • weight 470 gm (17 oz)
  • bill length 80 to 85 mm (3.1–3.3 in)

Distribution: Sub-saharan Africa, Madagascar, and coastal south-west Arabia.

Habitat and Behavior: Requires shallow water for foraging. Found in all wetland habitats, including rivers, streams, seasonal pools, estuaries, reservoirs, marshes, mangroves, irrigated land such as rice paddies, savannahs, and forests.

Catches prey while wading or from surface of water while in flight. Eats mainly fish and amphibians, also shrimp, insects, rodents. Dominant birds may signal to subordinates by opening their bills slightly and erecting their crests. Builds a huge domed nest, sometimes more than 1.5 m (4 ft 11 in) across, and strong enough to support a person’s weight.

Status: Least Concern.

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