Great white pelican (Pelecanus onocrotalus)

French: Pélican blanc
GenusPelecanus (1)
SizeLength of male: 175 cm (2)
Length of female: 148 cm (2)
Length of male’s bill: 35 – 47 cm (2)
Length of female’s bill: 29 – 40 cm (2)
Wingspan: 226 – 360 cm (2)
Weight of male: 9 – 15 kg (2)
Weight of female: 5 – 9 kg (2)

The great white pelican is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List 2006 (1) and is listed on Appendices I and II of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS or Bonn Convention) (3). It is listed on Appendix II of the Berne Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats (4) and on Annex I of the EC Birds Directive (5). It is also listed on Annex II of the African-Eurasian Migratory Water Birds Agreement (6).

This enormous bird has a spectacular azure blue bill with a central red stripe, and ending in a small, red hook. Beneath the lower jaw of the pelican, and extending to the base of the throat, is a bright yellow, elastic pouch that can hold a large volume of fish. The area of the face from the eye up to the bill is bare and fleshy pink. The head has a white crest of long, bushy feathers. The body feathers are creamy white with black tips to the wings. The feet are yellow and strongly webbed (2).

Sedentary populations are found year-round in Africa, south of the Sahara Desert. Migratory populations are found from Eastern Europe to Kazakstan during the breeding season and from northeast Africa through Iraq to north India in the winter. Great white pelicans have also been seen in southern Vietnam (2).

The fishing technique of these birds demands the shallow, warm water of lakes, deltas, marshes and swamps. In Europe and Asia the great white pelican is found on freshwater wetlands with abundant reed beds and grasses for nesting. In Africa the great white pelican is also found in alkaline lakes (2).

A social and cooperative bird, the great white pelican fishes in the early morning, spending the remainder of the day preening and bathing. Groups of birds bathe in shallow water, ducking their heads and bodies beneath the surface and flapping their wings. Pelicans may also be seen standing on sandbars and small islands with their wings spread and bills open, to cool down. The great white pelican feeds on large fish, mainly carp in Europe and cichlids in Africa, but is also known to take eggs and chicks of the Cape cormorant (Phalacrocorax capensis) in southwest Africa. Despite evidence suggesting that pelicans take fewer fish when fishing as a group, the great white pelican commonly feeds cooperatively. Between 8 and 12 or more birds form a horseshoe shape, herding fish into shallow water, and plunging their bills to catch the fish along the way. Once a pelican has fish in its pouch, it tilts its head vertically and swallows them whole (2).

During the breeding season, the great white pelican male behaves territorially; gaping, clapping its bill and bowing. It may even attack other males using the bill, should they come too close. Breeding takes place in spring in Europe, but is year-round in Africa, and despite the male’s defensive behaviour, the birds nest colonially near water. Males display using the head crest and the bright colours of the pouch. Once pairs have formed, a rudimentary nest is built on the ground from sticks (2). The female lays an average of two eggs and incubates them for 31 days (2) (7). The chicks fledge after 75 to 85 days, reaching sexual maturity at three to four years (2) (7). Great white pelicans can live for up to 30 years (2).

Great white pelicans are exploited for many reasons. The pouch is used to make tobacco bags, the skin is turned into leather, the guano is used as fertiliser, and the fat of young pelicans is converted into oils for traditional medicine in China and India. Human disturbance, loss of foraging habitat and breeding sites, and pollution are all contributing to the decline of the great white pelican. It was previously heavily persecuted by guano collectors as the pelican preys upon other guano-producing birds (8).

The great white pelican is not a well-monitored species, to the exception of those in South-Africa, particularly by the Avian Demography Unit of the University of Cape Town (7) (8). The Western Cape of South Africa has seen the only great white pelican population increase in the past 30 years. This is likely to be due to a new tendency of the pelicans to feed on offal at pig and chicken farms in the Greater Cape Town area. However, the large aggregations of birds at these sites puts the population at risk of mass poisoning if offal is contaminated with pesticides, as has happened in the past (8).

Since 2002, young birds on Dassen Island, South Africa, have been consistently tagged and banded with colours corresponding to the year of their birth. A bird ringed as a nestling in 1972 was found still breeding 27 years later in 1999 (8).

For further information on this species see the University of Cape Town – Avian Demography Unit:

For more information on this and other bird species please see:

Authenticated (05/12/2006) by Dr. Alain Crivelli, Chair of the IUCN Pelican Specialist Group.

  1. IUCN Red List (August, 2014)