This large pelican features stunning silvery-white plumage during the breeding season, which contrasts with the orange-red rubbery pouch beneath its bill and the purple to yellow bare skin around its eyes. On its nape it has a thick silver crest of feathers. Over the breeding season, its pouch fades to a yellow color, and in winter its plumage loses its sheen of silver and appears whitish or gray instead. The Dalmatian pelican the largest of the pelican species and is amongst the largest birds alive today, and, along with kori, great bustards and great swans, is one of the heaviest of flying birds.
There are two main populations of Dalmatian pelican. One breeds in Eastern Europe, wintering in the eastern Mediterranean region, and the other breeds in central Asia and Russia, wintering in the Indian subcontinent, Iran and Iraq. This species breeds within the reed beds or out in the open on the islands of coastal lagoons and river deltas, and also in inland, freshwater wetlands.
These pelicans are social birds, and live and travel mainly in flocks. On land they are not graceful, but they fly well and swim strongly. When flying, they rest their heads on their shoulders with their bills resting on their folded necks, and usually they need to flap their wings only once or twice each second. They are diurnal birds, sleeping at night with heads twisted back, tucked into their feathers. All species of pelican are careful groomers, and a large part of an individual’s time is spent resting or preening. An individual will clean itself through splash bathing, preening, and rubbing its head over its body to help distribute waterproofing oil through its feathers. Dalmatian pelicans often hunt alone, but will hunt in larger groups. They will return to particular breeding grounds in the breeding season. Here they are territorial, and will defend their nest from others. They are nomadic outside of the breeding season, traveling some distance in search of food.
Dalmatian pelicans are serially monogamous and form pair bonds by year, not for life. At the start of a new breeding season the courtship rituals begin again. Pairing occurs about a week after pelicans return to the breeding grounds. Dalmatian pelicans will use a range of different social signals during courtship, both visual and vocal. Once formed, the pair will begin to create their nest in an area with abundant fish and vegetation. The nests will be defended by means of hissing, sighing, and beak-jabbing movements when another bird comes too close. Breeding starts in the west of the range in March and April, but it varies geographically. Two to four eggs are laid and are incubated by both parents for 31 days. Nestlings are helpless when born and for their first few weeks their parents feed them. Fledging takes place between 60 to 90 days, young being able to hunt independently at about 12 weeks. Chicks reach reproductive maturity when they are 30 months old or during the third year.
Dalmatian pelicans were threatened in the past by wetland drainage, as well as being shot and persecuted by fishermen who regard them as competing with them for food. In only a few areas, fishermen continue this threat, and there is some disturbance from tourists. Habitat degradation from water pollution and wetland alteration are currently serious threats, compounded by the fishing industry’s over-exploitation of fish stocks and hunting by livestock herders in Mongolia. Furthermore, the bill of this species has traditionally been used by Mongolian nomads for a pouch.
According to IUCN’s Red List, the Dalmatian pelican total population size is about 10,000-13,900 individuals, which equates to roughly 6,700-9,300 mature individuals. Estimations for specific populations are as follows: 4,350-4,800 individuals in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea; 6,000-9,000 in south Asia and South-East Asia, and 50 in East Asia. Overall, Dalmatian pelicans are classified as Vulnerable (VU) and their numbers today are decreasing.