White Pelicans aka Great White Pelicans

White Pelicans aka Great White Pelicans
Great White Pelican, Pelecanus onocrotalus, or Eastern White Pelican or White Pelican

Great White Pelican in the USA (Breeding Plumage)The Great White Pelicans (Pelecanus onocrotalus) are large pelicans that are also commonly referred to as Eastern White Pelicans, Rosy Pelicans, or simply White Pelicans.


Other (Global / Regional) Names

Afrikaans: Witpelikaan, Wit-pelikaan ... Albanian: Pelikani rozë ... Arabic: ????? ??????, ?????? ???????, ?????? ??????? ?????? ... Armenian: [Vardaguyn Havalusn ], ?????????? ????????? ... Bulgarian: ????? ??????? ... Chinese: bai tihu ...Czech: Pelikán bílý, Pelikán menší ... Danish: Hvid Pelikan ... Dutch: Gewone pelikaan, Pelikaan, Roze Pelikaa ... Esperanto: Blanka pelikano ... Finnish: Pelikaani, ruusupelikaani, Ruusupelikkani ... French: Pélican blanc ... ... German: Rosapelikan, Weisspelikan ... Greek: ?????????????, Podopelkános ... Hungarian: Rózsás gödény ... Indonesian: Undan putih ... Italian: Pellicano, Pellicano bianco... Irish: Peileacán bán .... Japanese: momoiroperikan, Momo-iro-perikan, Momoiro-perikan ... Maltese: Pellikan ... Norwegian: Hvitpelikan ... Polish: Pelikan baba, pelikan rózowy ... Portuguese: Branco, pelicano vulgar ... Romansh: Pelican alv ... Russian: Rozovy Pelikan, ??????? ???????, ??????? ??????? ... Slovak: Pelikán bielý, Pelikán oby?ajný, Pelikán ružový ... Slovenian: rožnati pelikan ... Serbian: bijeli pelikan, nesit, ???? ???????, ????? ... Spanish: Pelícano Blanco, Pelícano Común, Pelícano vulgar ... Swedish: Vit pelikan ... Swahili: Mwari Mweupe ... Turkish: Ak pelikan, Akpelikan, Beyaz Pelikan, Ka??kç? Ku?u ... Ukrainian: ????, ??????? ??????? , ??????? ??????? ... Vietnamese: B? nông chn h?ng, L?nh ??nh chn h?ng ... Welsh: Pelican gwyn


White Pelicans

Great White Pelican, Pelecanus onocrotalus, or Eastern White Pelican or White PelicanDistribution

Great White Pelicans occur from Africa north to southeastern Europe through western Mongolia, Iraq and northern India.

More than half of the Great Pelicans breed in the Danube Delta in Romania.

Vagrants have  been photographed in the USA (a couple of photos of one such pelican spotted in Florida have been published on this page).

Those breeding in Eastern Europe to Kazakstan will generally move south to Africa through Iraq to north India after the breeding season.

In Africa, they are found anywhere other than the northern and central parts; where there are wintering colonies as well as sedentary (non-migratory) populations that occur south of the Sahara Desert in coastal and estuarine areas, as well as around large inland water bodies.

The largest wintering colony is found on Tanzania's Lake Rukwa, with almost 75,000 birds.

They generally inhabit swamps and shallow freshwater and brackish lakes.

These pelicans are also commonly kept in private collections, zoos or semi-wild colonies

White Pelicans


White Pelicans Description

The large Great White Pelicans measure about 1.40 - 1.75 meters in length and have a wing span of 2.70 - 3.60 meters. They weigh between 5 and 10 kgs.

The males are generally larger than the females and have longer bills that grow in a downwards arc. The female's bill is shorter and straighter. Males can also be identified by the tuft of feathers on the backside of their head.

The plumage is mostly white except for the black wing tips. The chest and the throat may be pinkish or yellowish, depending on the gender or breeding season. The bare facial patch of a breeding male is pinkish, whereas the female's is orangey in color.

The upper bill has a darker line along the top whereas the lower bill looks like a yellow pouch. They have short, strong legs and fully webbed toes that enable them to propel in water and takeoff from the water surface. They are powerful fliers, flocks often traveling in V-formation.

Juveniles have a grey plumage and dark wings.

Similar Species:

The only other larger pelican species is the related Dalmatian Pelican; however, the Great White can be identified by its white plumage (rather than the greyish white plumage of the Dalmatian Pelican). Their bare, pink facial patch around the eyes and pinkish legs are further identifying field marks.

 Great White Pelican in the USA (Breeding Plumage)

Diet / Feeding

The Great White Pelicans have enormous bills that are well adapted for catching their prey while swimming at the surface. As they push their large bills below water, the lower bill expands, creating a large pouch with which they trap their prey. As they lift the head out of the water, the pouch contracts, forcing out the water through the upper and lower bill, while retaining their meal in the pouch.

They mostly feed on fish - of which each eats about 1.2 - 1.4 kg (2.6 - 3.1 lbs) every day.

Groups of 6 to 8 of them often fish together, encircling and trapping shoals of fish in shallow waters, dipping their bills together, thus creating circles of open pouches around the fish.

In some areas they are endangered due to pollution or over-fishing, forcing them to fly long distances to find food. The largest known colony of these pelican on Tanzania's Lake Rukwa consists of over 80,000 birds, and they require about 35 million kilogram of fish every day.

However, they also take small invertebrates (such as insects, worms, mollusks), amphibians (such as frogs or salamanders) , crustaceans (such as, crabs, lobsters, crayfish) and these opportunistic foragers even taking turtles and chicks up to 2 kg in weight. When their preferred food items aren't available, they will eat seagulls and other smaller birds, often holding them under water to drown them before eating them headfirst. They may also steal food from other birds.

Great White Pelican, Pelecanus onocrotalus, or Eastern White Pelican or White Pelican


Breeding / Nesting

Great White Pelicans typically nest in colonies in swamps, on islands or along shallow lakes. The nest is a crude heap of sticks, lined with grasses, down and soft vegetation, placed on the ground (in Africa) or on trees.

A nest may contain 2 - 4 chalky white eggs (mostly 2), each one weighing between 160 and 200 g. The eggs are incubated for about 29 - 36 days. Both parents care for the nestlings. The young fledge (fly) when they are about 10 - 12 weeks old.

Great White Pelican, Pelecanus onocrotalus, or Eastern White Pelican or White Pelican

Status / Conservation / Threats

Even though they are still relatively common, their numbers have been declining for several reasons:

  • Overfishing in some areas
  • Water pollution
  • Loss of foraging habitat and breeding sites
  • Human exploitation: They are also killed for their pouches, using them to make tobacco bags and their skins are turned into leather. The fat of juveniles is converted into oils for traditional medicine in China and India.

They are protected under the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (AEWA).

Great White Pelican, Pelecanus onocrotalus, or Eastern White Pelican or White Pelican

Species Research by Sibylle Johnson


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