Australian pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus)

Also known as: spectacled pelican
GenusPelecanus (1)
SizeLength: 152 - 188 cm (2)
Wingspan: 230 - 260 cm (2)
Weight4 - 6.8 kg (2) (3)
Top facts

The Australian pelican is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

Australia’s only pelican (4), the Australian pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus) is a large, distinctive species which is notable for having the longest bill of any bird (5) (6). The Australian pelican’s characteristically large bill can measure up to 47 centimetres in length (5). This distinctive, elongated bill has a hooked tip (4) and a fleshy, pinkish or yellowish throat pouch (2) (3) (4), which turns dark blue, pink and scarlet during courtship (2).

The adult Australian pelican is mostly white, except for its upperwings and tail, which are black (3) (6) (7) (8) (9). This species has a short, grey crest on its head during the breeding season (4) (8), and its tail is short and square (6). Pelicans are good swimmers with strong legs (6), which in the Australian pelican are blue-grey (2) (4) (7).

While the male and female Australian pelican are very similar in appearance, the female is usually smaller than the male, and has a much shorter bill (2) (3) (9). Juvenile Australian pelicans look very similar to the adults, but have brown rather than black markings (2).

The Australian pelican is found throughout much of Australia, including Tasmania (8) (10) (11). A partial migrant (4), this species tends to fly northwards to winter in Indonesia, New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and New Zealand (2) (10) (11).

The Australian pelican is found both inland and in coastal regions (2) (3) (8), and tends to prefer large areas of open water that lack dense vegetation (2) (3). For example, it may inhabit lakes, lagoons, reservoirs, billabongs, rivers, floodplains and estuaries (2) (3) (11) (12), and also uses mudflats, sandbars, beaches, jetties and reefs for roosting (2). Although this species is frequently found in fishing ports, it requires remote, undisturbed sites, such as quiet beaches or small sandy islands on lakes, in order to breed (2).

A gregarious species (8), the Australian pelican can often be found in large groups (3) (4) (12). As a partial migrant (4), this species is a strong flier (12), and will occasionally move to inland lakes during times of drought (2) (4). The Australian pelican is highly distinctive in flight, keeping its neck retracted as it flies in a ‘V’ formation with other individuals, gliding and soaring with deep, slow wing beats (9).

The principal component of the Australian pelican’s diet is fish (2) (3), particularly carp (Cyprinus carpio) and perch (Perca fluviatilis) (2). However, it has also been recorded taking insects, small crustaceans, and even small birds, reptiles and amphibians (2) (3). The Australian pelican often feeds cooperatively, forming feeding flocks of up to 1,900 individuals (2). Foraging typically occurs in areas of open water (3), where this species catches its prey either by plunge-diving from just above the water (2), or by swimming on the surface and submerging its bill (3) (8). The Australian pelican is occasionally kleptoparasitic, robbing fish from other bird species (2).

Although relatively little is known about the breeding biology of the Australian pelican, it is thought to breed all year round in certain areas (2), with the timing and duration of breeding being largely dependent upon rainfall and water levels (2) (3). The Australian pelican is monogamous, with breeding pairs remaining together for a single season (6), and it breeds on low, secluded, undisturbed islands or shores, on bare ground or among grassy, patchily distributed vegetation (3). This species’ nest is a depression in the ground (2), usually just above the high water mark (3) (7), and is lined with sticks, seaweed, grassy herbs, and even bits of rubbish (2) (3) (7). Occasionally, the Australian pelican nests in bushes, where it builds a slightly more elaborate structure (2).

The female Australian pelican lays a clutch of between one and four eggs, although two is most common (2) (3) (7). These yellowish-white eggs are incubated by both adults (3) (6) (7) for a period of 32 to 35 days before the naked chicks hatch (2) (3). After being cared for continuously for about 25 days (2) (3), the Australian pelican chicks gather together in ‘pods’ or crèches, which can contain up to 100 birds (2) (3) (6). Interestingly, the adults can recognise their offspring among the mass of chicks, and will only feed their own young (6). At approximately three months of age, the young chicks attempt their first flight (2) (3).

The Australian pelican is not considered to be globally threatened, and is common in areas of suitable habitat (2). However, although the Australian pelican is not currently facing any major threats, changes in water levels within its habitat often lead to breeding failure, due to nests becoming swamped or the area becoming more accessible to terrestrial predators (2). Its large size and impressive wingspan also make the Australian pelican more susceptible to collisions with powerlines (13).

As it has an extremely large range and is not considered to be at risk of extinction, the Australian pelican is not currently the focus of any specific, targeted conservation measures (10). However, this species is legally protected throughout Australia (2).

Find out more about the Australian pelican:

Learn more about bird conservation in Australia:

Find out more about conservation in Australia:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. IUCN Red List (October, 2012)
  2. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1992) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 1: Ostrich to Ducks. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  3. Rogers, K. and Ralph, T. (2010) Floodplain Wetland Biota in the Murray-Darling Basin: Water and Habitat Requirements. CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, Australia.
  4. BirdLife International (2011) The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Birds. Dorling Kindersley Ltd., London.
  5. Carwardine, M. (2008) Animal Records. Sterling Publishing Company, Inc., New York.
  6. MobileReference (2009) The Illustrated Encyclopedia of European Birds: An Essential Guide to Birds of Europe. MobileReference, Boston.
  7. Gould, J. (1865) Handbook to the Birds of Australia. John Gould, London.
  8. Likoff, L. (1986) The Encyclopedia of Birds. Volume 1. Infobase Publishing, New York.
  9. Dutson, G. (2012) Birds of Melanesia: Bismarcks, Solomons, Vanuatu, and New Caledonia. A&C Black Publishers, London.
  10. BirdLife International - Australian pelican (October, 2012)
  11. Sibley, C.G. and Monroe Jr, B. (1991) Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World. Yale University Press, Connecticut.
  12. Strange, M. (2003) A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Indonesia. Princeton University Press, New Jersey.
  13. Gleeson, J. and Gleeson, D. (2012) Reducing the Impacts of Development on Wildlife. CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, Australia.