The great white pelican is a remarkable bird known for its immense size and migratory behavior. With its huge beak and unique pouch, it is able to catch fish and store them for later consumption. However, the population of the great white pelican is rapidly decreasing due to human-related activities. While it used to occasionally visit southeastern Europe, it is now mostly found in captivity or as an escapee. Despite its size, this bird is a skilled flyer, thanks to the air pockets under its skin. It has a long beak, a square-shaped tail, and wide wings that enable it to fly effortlessly. The great white pelican is both territorial and gregarious, living, hunting, and reproducing in groups. It communicates through various songs and is active during the day, devoting its time to fishing, bathing, and socializing. Unfortunately, it faces threats such as human disturbance, poaching, and predation. With its stunning appearance and unique characteristics, the great white pelican continues to captivate bird enthusiasts worldwide.
The great white pelican is an imposing bird with a predominantly white plumage and light brown shades on the tips of its wings. However, what most distinguishes this species of bird is the size of its peculiar beak. The pelican can reach a length of 180 cm with an extraordinary wingspan, and its long beak, which measures on average 40 cm, has a large distinctive pocket with a capacity of about 13 liters. Despite its size, the great white pelican has air pockets under its skin, which help it to fly easily for long hours and distances.
The great white pelican is found in sub-Saharan Africa and north of India during the winter months. However, it migrates to Eastern Europe and Asia for nesting, stopping on the banks of the Danube delta, the Caspian Sea, and the Black Sea. Some African populations are resident year-round and do not undertake any migration. This bird prefers habitats such as lakes and inland seas, where it can find suitable nesting sites and shallow pools for fishing.
The great white pelican feeds mainly on fish, which it catches using an ingenious technique. Several individuals, usually a dozen, swim together in a circle, hitting the water with their wings and beaks to push the fish into shallow water. The fish are then trapped in the pouch under the pelican’s beak, which acts as a net and can hold up to 13 liters of food. This strategy is so successful that the bird spends only one hour a day fishing and can dedicate the rest of its time to lazing around and caring for its plumage. However, this technique also creates an opportunity for other birds to steal fish from the pelican or for the pelican to steal fish from other pelicans.
The great white pelican is a very social bird, forming large colonies in which it reproduces, lives, and migrates. During the mating season, which falls in spring in Europe and occurs throughout the year in Africa, multiple males perform simultaneous courtship dances to attract females. Once a female chooses a mate, she selects a place to build the nest. On average, the brood consists of 2 eggs, which hatch after about 1 month of incubation. The young leave the nest after 65-75 days, and about 64% of them reach sexual maturity at 3-4 years of age.
In 2018, the great white pelican was classified as “Least Concern” on the IUCN’s Red List. Although this bird is not globally threatened, the European colonies are slightly decreasing in numbers. The main threats to the great white pelican’s population include human disturbance at nesting sites, poaching for its beak pouch, skin, and fat, collision with power lines during migration, and predation by crocodiles, jackals, and lions. Additionally, pollution and the depletion of food sources due to intensive fishing practices can also impact their survival. Efforts are underway to protect the great white pelican and its habitat through conservation measures and awareness campaigns.
6. Size and Appearance
The great white pelican is a massive bird, with a length of up to 180 cm and a wingspan of 245-295 cm. It has predominantly white plumage with light brown shades on the tips of its wings. Its most distinguishing feature is its long beak, measuring an average of 40 cm, which has a large distinctive pocket with a capacity of about 13 liters. The pelican also has webbed fingers with a membrane on its legs, allowing it to swim and move easily in water. Its tail has a square shape and is relatively short compared to its body. These physical adaptations enable the great white pelican to thrive in its aquatic habitats.
7. Flight and Migration
Despite its large size, the great white pelican is capable of flying for long hours and distances. This is due to the air pockets it has under its skin, which assist in buoyancy and make flight easier. During migration, the great white pelican travels from its wintering grounds in sub-Saharan Africa and north of India to nesting sites in Eastern Europe and Asia. It stops along the banks of the Danube delta, the Caspian Sea, and the Black Sea. Some African populations, however, remain resident year-round and do not undertake long migratory journeys.
8. Behavior and Communication
The great white pelican exhibits territorial and gregarious behaviors. It lives, flies, hunts, and reproduces in groups, forming large colonies. Despite being territorial, it is also highly sociable and communicates with other pelicans using a variety of songs and calls. These vocalizations serve different purposes, such as attracting a mate or warning the group of immediate danger. The great white pelican is primarily active during the day and spends its time fishing, bathing, and interacting with other individuals. During extremely hot periods, it will open its beak and spread its wings to cool down and combat the heat.
9. Habitat and Range
The great white pelican prefers habitats such as lakes and inland seas. It requires banks rich in reeds for nesting and shallow pools of water for fishing. During the winter months, it can be found in sub-Saharan Africa and north of India. In the nesting season, it migrates to Eastern Europe and Asia, stopping along the banks of the Danube delta, the Caspian Sea, and the Black Sea.
10. Threats and Conservation Efforts
While the great white pelican is not globally threatened, its European populations are experiencing a slight decrease in numbers. The main threats to the bird include human disturbance at nesting sites, poaching for its beak pouch, skin, and fat, collision with power lines during migration, and predation by crocodiles, jackals, and lions. Conservation efforts are focused on protecting the great white pelican and its habitat through measures such as creating protected areas, raising awareness about the bird’s importance, and promoting sustainable fishing practices to ensure an adequate food supply. Public support and involvement are crucial for the successful conservation of this magnificent migratory bird.