Pelican, a water bird that has an expandable pouch attached to the lower portion of its bill. Pelicans are found in almost all parts of the world. Some kinds are marine birds, while others divide their time between salt and fresh water. Of the six species, two are found in America. The pelican is web-footed. Its heavy, short-legged body may be five feet (1.5 m) long. Wingspread is from six to nine feet (1.8 to 2.7 m), according to the species. The straight, pointed bill may be more than a foot (30 cm) long. The upper part ends in a down-curving hook; suspended from the lower part and attached to the throat is the pouch of elastic skin, which they use to catch fish.
Pelicans are graceful in flight, and can fly for long periods. When feeding, most kinds of pelicans swim about in the water, submerging their heads to scoop up fish and water with their pouches. They point their bills downward to drain off the water, then swallow the fish. Pelicans nest in large colonies, building crude nests of earth, sticks, or pebbles on the ground, or of sticks in low trees and bushes. The female lays two or three bluish eggs, which soon turn white.
The white pelican has a white body, black wingtips, and yellow breast, bill, pouch, and feet. In the breeding season adults develop a horny growth on the upper side of the bill. The growth drops off about the time the young hatch. White pelicans often feed in groups, beating their wings and feet to drive the fish to shallow water. The American species breeds from Canada to western Colorado. It winters in California, Mexico, and Florida.
The brown pelican is found only in the Americas. It has a silver-brown body, white head, and brown pouch. Its bill is gray and its legs black. It dives for fish from a height of 10 to 30 feet (3 to 9 m). This bird inhabits both coasts of North America and South America, from Canada to Chile, and from North Carolina to Venezuela. It is also found in the West Indies and the Galápagos Islands. The brown pelican is the state bird of Louisiana. Beginning in the 1950’s, exposure to certain pesticides killed many brown pelicans and made the eggs of many others too fragile to incubate. The brown pelican population decreased greatly until the 1970’s, when these pesticides were banned. By the mid-1980’s the species had recovered in its eastern United States habitat, but it remained endangered on the Pacific coast into the late 1990’s.
Pelicans make up the family Pelecanidae. The American white pelican is Pelecanus erythrorhynchos; the brown pelican, P. occidentalis.