Australian Pelican

Pelecanus conspicillatus

Pelican. Photo: Jeff Groves

The Australian pelican is a very large waterbird, unmistakeable in appearance, and is the only pelican in the Australia. Despite their sometimes-comical manoeuvres, with their large bills and distensible pouches, pelicans are majestic birds whether soaring high overhead, coming into land on the water with legs extended like a water skier, or swimming in convoys on the water. Every art show or photo exhibition along the coast testifies to their popularity with the public, and their inspiration to the artistic.

Australian Pelicans mainly feed on fish but will also take insects, small crustaceans, birds, reptiles and amphibians. Occasionally they forage in groups, which herd fish into a concentrated area, into which they collectively and synchronously plunge their plunge beaks, to scoop up their prey. Water spills out of the sides of the extended pouch, enabling the captured prey to be swallowed. Pelicans will also try to steal prey from other birds, particularly cormorants.

Pelicans may breed at almost any time of the year depending upon conditions e.g. availability of prey in ephemeral inland lakes. The nest is a depression lined with plant material and rubbish. Clutch 1-4 eggs.



Pelicans are very large birds weighing between 4.0 and 6.8 kg. The sexes are similar except that the male is larger and has a bill between 20 to 45% larger. The large bill with its distensible pouch is distinctive and unmistakeable. The head, neck and body are white, with the nape and upper hindneck being greyish and forming a nuchal mane, or short crest. The scapulars and a strip of feathers along the side form a black ā€˜Vā€™ meeting on the central rump. The upperparts of the primaries and secondaries are black. When the bird is sitting they are partly covered by the long plumes of the white primary and great coverts. The underwings are black at the tip, grading to white near the base. The underwing median and marginal coverts are largely white, except for some black feathers in the middle forming a bar, which varies in intensity from solid to patchy. The tail feathers are black. Around the eye there is a narrow darkish blue orbital bill surrounded by a larger yellow ring. The legs are short giving the bird a characteristic waddling gait on land. In colour, they vary from dark slate-grey to bluish-grey. The feet are totipalmate, that is, they have a web between all four toes. In the breeding season, the nuchal crest is larger, the yellow orbital ring is brighter, the pouch is flushed salmon-pink and has a distinctive blue stripe running lengthwise from the base. Juveniles are like non-breeding adults except that the upperwing coverts are shorter, and the feathers that are black in adults are dark brown. Nestlings hatch naked and then grow greyish white down. Their feet are flesh coloured.

Where to find it

Pelicans can be found through most of South Australia except the arid west and north. In dry times, they can only be found in large rivers and lakes notably the Murray River. In wet years, they move inland to breed on ephemeral inland lakes, sometimes in their thousands. How they become aware of, and locate these breeding areas, is an enduring mystery.

Australian Pelicans are monotypic, having no subspecies.