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, hooked at the tip. The bird uses this pouch 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 a large bird with short legs, and they appear rather clumsy on land. Once in the water, they are strong swimmers, thanks to their webbed feet. Pelicans and their relatives—cormorants, gannets, and boobies—are the only birds with totipalmate feet. This means that webbing connects all four of their toes, even the back toe. Pelicans also get a little help staying afloat: air pockets in their skeleton and beneath their wings provide added buoyancy. And the birds use their bill to coat their feathers with a waterproof oil from a gland at the base of the tail. This keeps their feathers from becoming waterlogged and weighing them down.

Pelicans are splendid fliers, too, and can soar like eagles with their giant wings. Getting UP in the air can be challenging without the help of the wind. Pelicans must run over the water while beating their big wings and pounding 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.
Contrary to popular belief, pelicans do not store the catch of the day in their pouch for later consumption.
Pelicans are among the heaviest flying birds.
The brown pelican is the official bird of Louisiana.

The San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s pelicans have bird lovers flocking to see them. At the Zoo, four young great white pelicans, two males and two females, live in an exhibit on Park Way, just down the slope from the birds of prey aviaries. They share their home with cormorants, ducks, and other water birds. Read a blog about their arrival: Pelican Keeper Chat.

At the Safari Park, pelicans have been one of its big success stories. The Park has assembled the most comprehensive and productive collection of pelicans in North America and is the only accredited facility with great white, Dalmatian, and pink-backed pelicans. The Park’s Africa Tram tour offers the chance to see all three pelican species. In the South Africa field exhibit, Dalmatian and great white pelicans live together. The Dalmatians are fond of nesting on the island in the exhibit, which is only accessible to keepers by boat.

In the Central Africa field exhibit, a dozen pelican youngsters, from all three species, spend their weaning period with two older birds that serve as mentors. Penny, an older female pink-backed pelican, is sort of the bird in charge, helping them learn the ropes. The Park’s African Forest houses three pairs of pink-backed pelicans and also features a small island for the birds to enjoy.

The use of the insecticide DDT almost wiped out pelicans and other birds by causing eggshells to thin. Pelicans received large doses of the chemical from the fish they ate, due to pesticide contamination in the water from run-off and the direct dumping of DDT waste, which affected the ocean’s food chain. In addition, nesting colonies were disturbed as more people moved to coastal areas. By 1970, brown pelicans were listed as endangered. The ban on DDT use in 1972 proved beneficial for pelicans, and their numbers gradually returned.

But another problem confronts the brown pelican. They have discovered that food is easily attained from fishermen in boats and on bridges or piers. What they haven’t discovered, however, is a way to avoid the fisherman’s dangerous hooks and lines. Birds have received serious injuries to almost every part of their body from barbed hooks. When fisherman snag a pelican, they often cut their lines rather than bringing the bird in and carefully removing the hook. And the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has caused the slow decay of mangrove swamps where thousands of the birds used to nest.

Likewise, things are looking grim for the Dalmatian pelican, which is native to eastern Europe and parts of Asia. As a ground nester, shrinking wetlands caused its population to drop. But recent conservation efforts, including legal protection, have greatly helped this pelican species. Although it is still a vulnerable species, there is some hope!

Even though pelicans may be unusual looking, they 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 species back from the brink by supporting the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy. Together we can save and protect wildlife around the globe.