Range:

Every continent except Antarctica

Habitat:

Temperate and tropical shores; certain species are typically found along seacoasts, and others live near inland lakes.

Kangaroos aren't the only ones with pouches

It is easy to identify pelicans because they are one of the only birds with a pouch under their bill. There is a famous limerick that begins, “A wonderful bird is the pelican, his bill can hold more than his ‘belican’….” This enormous, naked skin pouch hangs from the lower half of the pelican's long, straight bill, which is hooked at the tip. The pouch is used to catch fish and, as the limerick says, its bill does indeed hold more than its "belly can"!

The unique pouch is also helpful in warm weather. While roosting in the hot sun, pelicans open their bill and flap the pouch to cool off.

At home on the water or in the sky

Along with the giant pouch, pelicans are short-legged with a big body, and they appear rather clumsy on land. However, once in the water, they are strong swimmers and use their webbed feet to push through the water. Pelicans and their relatives, such as cormorants, gannets, and boobies, are the only birds with a totipalmate foot. This means that webbing connects all four of their toes, even the back toe.

Pelicans are also splendid fliers and can soar like eagles with their giant wings. Getting up in the air, however, can be challenging without the help of the wind. Pelicans must run over the water, beat their big wings, and pound the surface of the water with both feet in unison to get enough speed for takeoff.

Pelicans are an old family of birds, with fossils dating back almost 40 million years.
A gull often sits on a pelican’s head, trying to steal a meal when the pelican opens its bill slightly to empty out the water.
The lower half of a pelican's bill can hold up to 3 gallons (11 liters) of water, which is 2 to 3 times more than can be held in its stomach.
A group of pelicans is called a pod.

The San Diego Zoo Safari Park is the only facility in North America that raises great white pelicans, pink-backed pelicans, and Dalmatian pelicans. The San Diego Zoo added four young great white pelicans to our collection in 2013; they can be viewed in the Zoo's African Marsh habitat across from Eagle Trail. Read a blog about their arrival: Pelican Keeper Chat.

Even though these birds may be unusual looking, pelicans have successfully adapted to their various habitats for millions of years. So far there are no endangered pelican species, and we hope that with continuing conservation education this is how their status will remain.

You can help us bring other species back from the brink by supporting the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy. Together we can save and protect wildlife around the globe.