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The Majestic Australian Pelican: Fascinating Facts You Need to Know

The Australian Pelican, scientifically known as Pelecanus conspicillatus, is a waterbird species that can be found in Australia, Papua New Guinea, and Indonesia. This large and majestic bird is an iconic species that is well-known for its remarkable appearance and behavior.

In this article, we will explore everything you need to know about the Australian Pelican, from its identification and plumage to its unique behaviors and habitats. Identification:

Field Identification:

The Australian Pelican is a large bird that can grow up to 1.8 meters in length and weigh up to 13 kg.

It has a massive bill that can be up to 47 cm long, which is an important tool for scooping up fish. In flight, the Australian Pelican has broad wings that can span up to 3 meters, and it has a distinctive black and white plumage.

Its legs and feet are also black, and its eyes are a striking pale blue color. Similar Species:

The Australian Pelican can be easily distinguished from other pelican species by its larger size and longer bill.

It can also be differentiated from other black and white waterbirds, such as gulls and terns, by its massive bill and larger size. Plumages:


The Australian Pelican has two distinct molts throughout the year, which can impact its appearance.

During the breeding season, the Australian Pelican has bright orange feathers on its bill that fade to a pale pink color outside of the breeding season. Additionally, the Australian Pelicans plumage can become stained or discolored over time due to the birds diet, which consists primarily of fish.


Feedings Habits:

The Australian Pelican is a unique bird with fascinating feeding habits. It uses its massive bill like a scoop to catch fish, and it can hold up to 13 liters of water in its bill when foraging.

Once it has caught fish, the Australian Pelican will tip its head back, allowing the water to drain out of its bill before swallowing its prey whole. Breeding Habits:

The Australian Pelican is a colony-nesting species that breeds along the coast of Australia.

During the breeding season, the Australian Pelican will gather in large groups for courtship, which involves elaborate displays such as head-bobbing and bill shaking. Once a pair mates, the female will lay 1-3 eggs, which are incubated by both parents for around a month.


The Australian Pelican can be found across a variety of habitats, including freshwater and saltwater wetlands, rivers, and estuaries. They are a migratory species that will travel long distances to find suitable habitats, and often congregate in large flocks during the non-breeding season.

In conclusion, the Australian Pelican is a fascinating bird species that is known for its distinctive appearance and unique behaviors. The Australian Pelican is one of Australias most iconic bird species, and it can be easily identified by its massive bill, black and white plumage, and pale blue eyes.

Understanding everything about this beautiful bird species can help us appreciate their existence and protect their habitats as well. Systematics History:

The Australian Pelican, Pelecanus conspicillatus, is a member of the Pelecanidae family and one of eight species of pelicans found globally.

The scientific naming of the Australian Pelican dates back to 1824 when it was first described by Louis Jean Pierre Vieillot, a French ornithologist.

Geographic Variation:

There is little geographic variation in the appearance of the Australian Pelican across its range; however, some smaller differences have been noted in bill size and shape that may reflect differences in diet.


The Australian Pelican has no recognized subspecies; its range covers most of Australia, including Tasmania, and parts of Papua New Guinea and Indonesia.

Related Species:

The Australian Pelican is part of the genus Pelecanus, which includes seven other species: the American White Pelican, Brown Pelican, Great White Pelican, Pink-Backed Pelican, Dalmatian Pelican, Spot-Billed Pelican, and the Peru Pelican.

Historical Changes to Distribution:

Prior to European settlement, the Australian Pelican was a common sight along the east coast of Australia; however, much of its current range was inaccessible or uninhabitable to European settlers due to harsh terrain, including deserts and mountain ranges. As such, early observations of the Australian Pelican were concentrated in areas that were easily accessible by boat.

Over time, the Australian Pelican’s range has expanded, and today it is found throughout the continent. During the 20th century, the Australian Pelican’s range was found to be expanding to the west and south of Australia.

Some experts speculate that the increased availability of inland wetland habitats that have been created by the construction of irrigation channels has contributed to this expansion. Another historical change affecting the Australian Pelican’s distribution was the drainage of inland wetlands.

In the early 20th century, large-scale drainage of inland wetlands, particularly in southern Australia, removed much of the Australian Pelican’s breeding habitat. The remaining wetlands became heavily fragmented, which may have limited the Australian Pelican’s capacity for dispersal and colonization.

The Australian Pelican is also known to form local movements related to the resource availability of wetland habitats. For example, in times of drought or when wetlands are undergoing stress, the Australian Pelican may move between distant locations, such as from inland wetlands to coastal beaches.

This mobility allows the bird to capitalize on wetlands that remain functional, preventing it from becoming vulnerable to habitat loss.

Climate change and its associated impacts are also likely to affect the Australian Pelican in the future.

Warmer temperatures and changing rainfall patterns have the potential to restructure wetland ecosystems, affecting the birds’ preferred breeding areas and feeding patterns. In particular, changes to the timing and availability of natural fish stocks could pose a significant challenge to the Australian Pelican’s diet.

In conclusion, the Australian Pelican has a relatively stable range, with little geographic variation across its distribution. The bird’s range has expanded across much of Australia, and its movements are linked to the availability of suitable wetland habitats.

Human activities, such as land drainage, have impacted the species’ populations in the past, while climate change and its associated impacts may pose threats in the future. As with many species, monitoring, habitat protection, restoration, and research are essential for understanding how to conserve the future of the Australian Pelican.


The Australian Pelican is a waterbird species that is dependent on wetland habitats for breeding, feeding, and resting. They can be found in a variety of habitats, including freshwater and saltwater wetlands, rivers, estuaries, and coastal beaches.

This species is variable in its use of habitat, with some individuals highly mobile and others adopting a more sedentary lifestyle. Within their wetland habitats, Australian Pelicans can be found roosting in tall trees or shrubs near the water, or resting on sandy beaches or mudflats.

They typically feed in shallow water, using their massive bills as a scoop to gather small fish, amphibians, and crustaceans from the water’s surface. Movements and Migration:

The Australian Pelican is a highly mobile species and can travel long distances in search of suitable habitat.

During the non-breeding season, Australian Pelican populations can form large flocks that move between different habitats to find food and avoid harsh weather conditions. Some populations in inland Australia, for example, undertake highly synchronized movements in response to wetland availability and drying.

While Australian Pelican populations are considered to be primarily Australian residents, some individuals undertake seasonal movements or migrations outside of Australia. In particular, some populations are known to undertake movements into Indonesia and Papua New Guinea during the non-breeding season.

In Australia, Australian Pelicans are known to concentrate in specific wetland habitats at different times of the year. For example, during the non-breeding season, large numbers of Australian Pelicans can be found congregating along the southern coast of Australia and in estuaries in Western Australia.

During the breeding season, Australian Pelicans can be found nesting in large colonies in inland Australia and on the island of Tasmania. Australian Pelicans may also undertake cross-continental movements, particularly following flooding events or shifts in habitat availability.

For example, in 2011, large numbers of Australian Pelicans were observed outside of their normal range in Western Australia. This occurrence was thought to be the result of flooding in eastern Australia that displaced the birds and sent them in search of alternative breeding habitat.

The movement and migration patterns of the Australian Pelican are not well understood and require further research. For example, it is not well understood how different populations of the Australian Pelican interact with each other or what correlates to individual movement patterns.

Such information can inform tailored management strategies to conserve the population and prevent further deterioration due to environmental pressures. In summary, the Australian Pelican is a highly mobile species that undertakes wide-scale movements and migrations in response to changing habitat availability and environmental conditions.

While some populations undertake seasonal movements outside of Australia, most individuals exhibit local movements in response to sensitive environmental conditions within Australian wetlands. Improved understanding of these movements and habitats will assist with immediate conservation efforts to protect this species’ long-term survival.

Diet and Foraging:


The Australian Pelican is a piscivorous bird species, which means it feeds almost exclusively on fish. Australian Pelicans have a distinctive foraging style adapted to their piscivorous diets.

They float on the water’s surface, scanning underwater with their eyes for schools of small fish. When the fish are spotted, the Australian Pelican plunges into the water headfirst with its bill open, creating a pouch between its bill and throat capable of holding 13 liters of water.

The bird then uses its tongue to press out the water, trapping the fish inside the pouch, which is then effortlessly swallowed.


The Australian Pelican’s diet can consist of over 40 species of fish, including bony fish, catfish, mullet, eels, and prawns.

Smaller species are preferred, with fish in the 10 – 20 cm size range predominating. This bird species does not discriminate among the fish types consumed but eats based on availability.

The type and quantity of fish taken by the Australian Pelican are reflective of the available resources present in the given wetland system.

Metabolism and Temperature Regulation:

The Australian Pelican is a large bird species, which means it has a larger metabolic rate than smaller bird species, predominantly due to the need for energy required for managing feathers and muscles.

Due to the Australian Pelican’s exposure to challenging climate conditions that can range from hot and dry to wet and cold, it requires an exceptional range of physiological responses to adapt.

The Australian Pelican has unique internal systems in place that ensure they can successfully colonize hot and arid wetlands.

For example, this bird species has an exceptionally high renal threshold for water re-absorption, allowing it to conserve over 95% of the fluid it ingests. They have a highly specialized gland in the lower eye socket similar to a preen gland which excretes salt to manage salt build-up in their bodies from feeding on saltwater fish.

Sounds and Vocal Behavior:


The Australian Pelican is not known for its bird-song-like vocalizations, but it has a wide range of calls it uses for communication, particularly during the breeding season. During breeding, they engage in bill-smacking and head-swinging to announce their presence, while low-frequency rhythmic calls are used for coordinating behaviors in flocks.

There is no sign that one sex produces more vocalizations than the other during the breeding season, with both sexes using a similar repertoire of sounds. Calls may also convey aggression or alarm, although there is still a level of ambiguity surrounding their function.

Furthermore, vocalizations may vary depending on flock size and season, with non-breeding flocks and smaller flocks using less vocalizations than larger breeding colonies. In conclusion, diet and foraging by the Australian Pelican are central to its lifestyle and reflect highly sophisticated adaptations.

This bird species’ unique foraging style is attuned closely to its piscivorous diet and the types of fish available in the wetland habitat. The Australian Pelican’s metabolism and temperature regulation systems play an essential role in regulating salt intake, and fluid and temperature control.

Finally, while the vocal calls of the Australian Pelican are not known for their harmonious sounds, they play an important role in flock organization and communication. Behavior:


The Australian Pelican is a highly adaptable bird when it comes to locomotion.

They are primarily waterbirds, and their feet and legs have evolved to be webbed to support swimming, while their wings are broad and powerful for use in both flight and stability on water. This species can swim in open water or use its wings and legs to push itself through shallow water with ease.

When flying, Australian Pelicans are known to use thermal air currents, gliding for extended periods to conserve energy and cover long distances. Self-Maintenance:

The Australian Pelican is a highly careful bird species, and it invests much time in its preening and grooming regimen.

It spreads oil from a specialized gland on its lower back using its bill to waterproof its feathers and help them maintain a sleek appearance. This species will spend much of the day preening their feathers, almost always starting from the head and ending at the tail-tip.

Egg-laying females have also been observed to spend more time preening their feathers, which can be attributed to the appearance’s importance when it comes to mating. Agonistic Behavior:

The Australian Pelican is a social species and has a hierarchical community structure, demonstrating a range of agonistic behaviors.

These displays can be seen in social encounters, such as fights over food, roosting space, or courting. Dominance is established through these confrontations and can result in aggression toward lower-ranked individuals or lunging or pointing their bill towards their opponent.

Sexual Behavior:

During courtship, the Australian Pelican will perform an elaborate display, involving head-bobbing, bill-swinging, wing-beats, and vocal calls. These breeding displays can be observed in large colonies during the breeding season, with some individuals fighting off rivals and defending their territory against incursions.


The Australian Pelican is a monogamous bird species that breeds within colonies. This species nests throughout Australia, generally in inland areas near wetlands and often in large trees that offer protection from aerial predators.

Breeding occurs during the spring months, with egg-laying occurring between July and November. The clutch size is typically two eggs, with incubation lasting approximately 32-35 days.

Both parents share parental duties, taking turns in incubating the eggs and feeding the chicks. Demography and Populations:

The Australian Pelican has a highly variable population density across its range, with estimates ranging from 100,000 to 500,000 birds in Australia alone.

The species is considered to have stable populations overall, but some populations have been declining, particularly those in inland Australia. These declines are attributed to habitat modification, specifically habitat loss due to land-use changes, such as wetland drainage and river regulation, and as a result of introduced predators.

As a migratory species, Australian Pelicans face a range of challenges that could affect population numbers, including habitat degradation and environmental change. There is a need for further studies regarding the distribution, population structure, and genetic diversity of the Australian Pelican.

Moreover, there is increasing pressure to develop comprehensive survey methods that can track changes in population size and distribution as a whole.

In summary, the Australian Pelican is a versatile and adapted species that invests much in its self-maintenance and breeding behaviors.

This waterbird species’ sexual and territorial displays are elaborate, and its overall agonistic behaviors play an important role in breeding and social encounters. Habitat modification and environmental change remain significant population threats, making ongoing monitoring and protection efforts crucial to ensuring the Australian Pelican’s continued survival.

In conclusion, the Australian Pelican is an iconic waterbird species that has adapted to its unique wetland habitats with specialized behaviors and physiology. From its piscivorous diet and unique foraging style to its elaborate courtship displays and highly vocal social behavior, this bird species is a fascinating study in the adaptive power of nature.

The Australian Pelican’s populations are in a relatively stable state, but ongoing environmental changes threaten to destabilize its habitats and populations. Consistent monitoring, research, and protection efforts are therefore vital for sustaining this species while also preserving the broader health of wetland ecosystems.

It is crucial that we continue to implement protective measures that ensure the Australian Pelican’s continued survival for future generations.

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