Eight Species of Pelicans in the Pelecanidae Family

The Pelecanidae family is home to eight fascinating species of pelicans, magnificent waterbirds found across the globe, particularly in warmer regions. These birds have a unique method of catching their prey, using their expandable throat pouches to scoop up fish before draining the water and swallowing their meal. To cool off, pelicans can pant and flutter their pouches, finding relief in warmer climates. With their short but muscular legs, equipped with webbed toes, pelicans are excellent swimmers. They also possess the ability to glide and soar by holding their wings out rigidly horizontal. Interestingly, different species have varying fishing techniques, with some catching fish while swimming and others diving from their flights. While the male pelicans are larger in size, both genders are indistinguishable by their plumage. These remarkable creatures come in different sizes, ranging from lengths of 1.25 to 1.9 meters, wingspans of 2.0 to 3.4 meters, and weights of 3.6 to 12 kilograms. The Pelecanidae family is part of the Pelecaniformes order, which includes other magnificent birds such as herons, egrets, ibises, spoonbills, the shoebill, and the hamerkop. The shoebill, found in tropical east-central Africa, is the sole member of the Balaenicipitidae family and shares a close relationship with pelicans. On the other hand, the hamerkop, also known as the hammerkop or hammerhead, is the only species in the Scopidae family and can be found in sub-Saharan Africa and Madagascar.

Species of Pelicans in the Pelecanidae Family


Pelicans, belonging to the Pelecanidae family, are fascinating large waterbirds found worldwide. With eight distinct species, they play an important ecological role in various habitats. This article will delve into the characteristics and behaviors of pelicans, their adaptations, and their relation to other birds within the Pelecaniformes order.

1. Pelicans as Large Waterbirds


Pelicans are highly adaptable birds, and their habitats range from coastal areas to inland lakes and rivers. They can be found in both saltwater and freshwater environments, making them versatile in their preferences for nesting and feeding locations.

Global Distribution

These magnificent birds have a global distribution, found on every continent except Antarctica. They are particularly prevalent in warm regions such as Africa, Asia, Australia, and the Americas. This broad distribution highlights the ability of pelicans to adapt and thrive in a variety of ecosystems.

Warm Regions

Pelicans are best known for their association with warm regions. They are often seen basking under the sun, soaring in the sky, or taking a leisurely swim in tropical waters. Their affinity for warm climates is conducive to their fishing habits and enables them to find an abundance of prey.

2. Pelican Diet and Feeding Behavior

Fish Consumption

The primary diet of pelicans consists of fish, and they are experts at catching them. With their keen eyesight, they spot fish swimming near the water’s surface and swiftly dive into the water to secure their meal. This piscivorous preference is crucial in maintaining the delicate balance of aquatic ecosystems.

Expanding Throat Pouch

One of the most remarkable features of pelicans is their expandable throat pouch. After dipping their bill into the water and catching a fish, they skillfully expand their pouch, allowing it to fill with water and fish. This extraordinary adaptation enables them to catch larger prey and hold it securely until they can drain the water and consume the fish.

Water Drainage

To ensure that ingested fish doesn’t escape, pelicans have developed a unique mechanism for draining the water from their pouches before swallowing their meal. They tilt their heads back, and the excess water drains out of the pouch through the bill. This efficient process allows them to consume their catch without wasting valuable energy on unnecessary movements.

Methods of Fishing

Pelicans employ various fishing techniques depending on the species and their surroundings. Some species, such as the Brown Pelican, catch fish while swimming on the water’s surface. Utilizing their keen eyesight, they dive headfirst, becoming partially submerged to snatch their prey. Other species, like the Australian Pelican, combine swimming and flying behaviors. They locate fish from the air and then plunge into the water from their flights to catch their meal.

3. Adaptations of Pelicans

Cooling Mechanism

As large waterbirds, pelicans need efficient mechanisms to regulate their body temperature. To prevent overheating, they employ a cooling technique involving their expandable throat pouch. By panting and fluttering the pouch, they promote evaporation, which cools the surrounding air and subsequently their bodies. This adaptation is crucial, especially in warm climates where pelicans are often found.

Panting and Fluttering

In addition to cooling themselves, pelicans also pant and flutter their pouches to cool their eggs during the nesting period. This behavior aids in preserving the optimal temperature required for successful incubation.

Webbed Toes for Swimming

Pelicans possess short, strong legs with four webbed toes. This unique adaptation allows them to paddle and maneuver efficiently in water. Their webbed toes enable them to swim gracefully, giving them an advantage in their aquatic environment.

Wings for Gliding and Soaring

To navigate the skies, pelicans rely on their impressive wingspan and aerodynamic abilities. Their wings are specially designed for gliding and soaring, allowing them to cover great distances with minimal effort. By holding their wings rigidly horizontal, they can effortlessly glide through the air, conserving energy while seeking prey or migrating to different habitats.

4. Sexual Dimorphism in Pelicans

Male and Female Size Differences

One notable aspect of pelicans is the disparity in size between males and females. In most species, males are generally larger than females. This size difference can range from a few centimeters to several kilograms, depending on the species. This dimorphism may be attributed to various factors, including the roles each sex plays in reproduction and the individual requirements of survival.

No Visible Plumage Differences

Although there are size differences between males and females, pelicans do not exhibit significant visible plumage differences between the sexes. Their striking appearances, with long bills and large pouches, remain consistent throughout both sexes. This lack of plumage differences allows both males and females to engage in similar behaviors and offers no distinct advantage or disadvantage to either gender.

5. Physical Characteristics of Pelicans


Pelicans exhibit remarkable variation in size across different species. Their lengths range from approximately 1.25 to 1.9 meters. The extensive diversity in their sizes helps them adapt to various habitats and ecological niches.


The wingspan of pelicans is equally impressive, with measurements ranging from 2.0 to 3.4 meters. This wingspan allows them to efficiently glide through the air, covering extensive distances during migration and conserving energy during flights.


Pelicans display varying weights, reflecting the differences in species and individual sizes. Their weights can range from 3.6 to 12 kilograms, with larger species naturally weighing more. These diverse weight ranges further highlight the adaptability and versatility of pelicans within their habitats.

6. The Pelecanidae Family in the Pelecaniformes Order

Family Classification

With eight species of pelicans, the Pelecanidae family is an integral part of the Pelecaniformes order. This order encompasses iconic birds such as herons, egrets, ibises, spoonbills, and, of course, pelicans. The classification reflects the shared characteristics and evolutionary history of these birds and their interactions within ecosystems.

Other Birds in the Order

Within the Pelecaniformes order, herons, egrets, ibises, and spoonbills play vital roles in various habitats worldwide. These birds share similarities with pelicans in terms of size, feeding habits, and adaptations for aquatic environments. Their coexistence within the same order highlights the delicate balance and interconnectedness of these bird species in maintaining healthy ecosystems.

7. The Shoebill and Its Relation to Pelicans

Distinct Species

While pelicans are known for their unique characteristics and adaptations, another remarkable bird, the shoebill (Balaeniceps rex), also captivates researchers and nature enthusiasts. Although it does not belong to the Pelecanidae family, the shoebill is closely related to pelicans. It is the sole representative of the Balaenicipitidae family, sharing certain traits and behaviors with pelicans.

Geographical Distribution

The shoebill can be found in tropical east-central Africa, inhabiting countries such as Sudan, Uganda, Zambia, and Tanzania. While their distribution may overlap with certain species of pelicans, the shoebill’s distinct habitat preferences and specific adaptations distinguish it as a unique and ecologically significant bird within its range.

8. The Hammerkop and Its Relation to Pelicans

Distinct Species

Among the diverse bird species in sub-Saharan Africa and Madagascar, the hammerkop (Scopus umbretta) stands out as a unique and enigmatic bird. Also known as the hammerhead, the hammerkop is the sole representative of the Scopidae family. Although it shares some characteristics with pelicans and other birds in the Pelecaniformes order, it is an independent and distinct species.

Geographical Distribution

The hammerkop can be found in various habitats, including wetland areas, rivers, and lakes throughout sub-Saharan Africa and Madagascar. Its distribution, although encompassing some areas where pelicans thrive, does not directly overlap with that of pelicans. This separation in range emphasizes the distinct ecological roles and adaptations of the hammerkop within its specific habitats.

In conclusion, pelicans are remarkable large waterbirds found around the world, particularly in warm regions. Their expansive global distribution, diverse diet, and unique adaptations make them fascinating subjects of study. Understanding the characteristics and behaviors of pelicans, as well as their relationships with other bird species within the Pelecaniformes order, provides valuable insights into the breathtaking world of avian biodiversity.

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