Great White Pelican

Great White Pelican

Eastern White pelican, Rosy pelican, White pelican

Pelecanus onocrotalus
Population size
265-295 Thou
Life Span
51 yrs
65 km/h
5.4-15 kg
140-180 cm
226-360 cm

The Great White pelican that lives in the shallow swamps in Africa is one of the largest flying birds in the world. It has the abilities of multiple birds, such as long flights and swimming. Its unique characteristic is the “gular pouch” inside its beak. Its legs are short and strong with fully webbed toes that allow it to propel itself in water and to take off from the surface of the water. They are powerful fliers and often travel in flocks in a V-formation to reduce drag for the group.


Resident populations are found the whole year round south of the Sahara Desert in Africa. Migratory populations inhabit Eastern Europe to Kazakhstan when it is the breeding season and during the winter in northeast Africa and Iraq to the north of India and southern Vietnam. In Europe, they occur in freshwater lakes, marshes, swamps or deltas, wherever there are sufficient amounts of grasses or reed beds for nesting. In Africa, they are found in lowlands and freshwater or alkaline lakes. Shallow, warm water is needed for the fishing technique of these birds.

Great White Pelican habitat map

Climate zones

Habits and Lifestyle

Great White pelicans live, breed, migrate, feed, and fly in formation in large colonies. Fishing is usually over by 8-9 am and they spend the remainder of the day on small islands or sandbars resting, preening, and bathing. They bathe by ducking their head and body into the water while flapping their wings. When hot, they will spread their wings or gape to cool down. Large flocks may congregate at traditional roosts, these places also being used after fishing tips as daytime resting sites. They sometimes perch in trees, but usually they roost on the ground. To defend his territory, a male threatens intruders by gaping, clapping his bill, and bowing, attacking with his bill if necessary. These birds are generally silent except in the breeding season when the adults make low, hoarse display calls.

Group name
Seasonal behavior

Diet and Nutrition

Great White pelicans are carnivores (piscivores), they eat fish, mainly cichlids and carp and also small invertebrates.

Mating Habits

temperate zones: April or May, in Africa: year-round, in India: February-April
31 days
75-85 days
chick, nestling
2 eggs

Great White pelicans are monogamous and form long-term pair bonds. During the breeding season, a male behaves territorially: gaping, bowing and clapping his bill, and may attack other males with his bill if they come too close. April or May is when the breeding season commences in temperate zones, but in Africa it is essentially all year round, and in India it runs from February until April. Males display their head crest and their brightly colored pouch. A pair will build a rudimentary nest from sticks on the ground or in a tree. They typically nest in colonies, along shallow lakes, in swamps, or on islands. Two eggs are usually laid and are incubated by the female for 31 days. Chicks fledge at 75 to 85 days, reaching reproductive maturity when three to four years old.


Population threats

This species is not under threat, but pelicans elsewhere are, particularly in India and south-eastern Europe, due to habitat destruction, flooding, pollution, disease, and disturbance of breeding sites. Once disturbed, the whole colony will leave, and not return.

Population number

According to IUCN Red List the global population is estimated at 265,000-295,000 individuals. According to Wikipedia, Europe now has about 7,345–10,000 breeding pairs, over 4,000 pairs nesting in Russia. At the time of migration, over 75,000 birds have been seen in Israel, and during winter, over 45,000 birds may stay in Pakistan. It is estimated that 75,000 pairs nest in Africa. Overall, currently Great White pelicans are classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List.

Ecological niche

Due to their diet, this species may affect fish populations across a range of habitats.

Fun Facts for Kids

  • ‘Pelecaniformes’ is the family that pelicans belong to, being distinguished from other birds because all 4 of their toes are webbed, known as ‘totipalmate’.
  • This bird’s yellow gular pouch has capacity for 13 liters of liquids or up to 4 kg of fish.
  • This is a gregarious species, and even the chicks form into flocks for safety in numbers.
  • A Great White pelican does not dive to catch its prey, instead, it dips it head in unison with other birds to scoop fish into its huge throat pouch.
  • In the breeding season, these birds have a pinkish color, with usually yellow on the breast.


1. Great White Pelican Wikipedia article -
2. Great White Pelican on The IUCN Red List site -

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