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Species Guide
A photo of a Great White Pelican (Pelecanus onocrotalus)
Great White Pelican

Great White Pelican

Pelecanus onocrotalus

The great white pelican, known scientifically as Pelecanus onocrotalus, is a gargantuan bird, surpassed in size only by its cousin, the Dalmatian pelican. With a body length ranging from 140 to 180 cm and a wingspan stretching from 226 to 360 cm, it is one of the largest flying birds. The pelican's bill is an impressive 28.9 to 47.1 cm long, colored in hues of pink and yellow, and is accompanied by a pale-yellow gular pouch. Males are generally larger than females and exhibit a pronounced sexual dimorphism, with males averaging more than 30% heavier than females.

Identification Tips

Adult great white pelicans are predominantly white with black flight feathers and a faint pink tinge on the neck. The bill is bluish-grey with a red tip and a yellowish gular pouch. During the breeding season, males display pinkish facial skin, while females exhibit a more orangey hue. Juveniles are distinguishable by their darker, brownish underparts and patterned underwings.


These pelicans favor shallow, warm freshwater environments, such as lakes, swamps, and lagoons, often with dense reed beds nearby for nesting. They are also found in coastal estuarine areas and occasionally at elevations up to 1,372 m in East Africa and Nepal.


The great white pelican breeds from southeastern Europe through Asia to Africa. It is a migratory species with populations found from Eastern Europe to Kazakhstan during the breeding season. In Africa, it is resident south of the Sahara Desert.


The great white pelican is a highly sociable bird, often forming large flocks. It is an adept swimmer and an elegant flier, known for its soaring flight with occasional slow wingbeats followed by glides. These birds are cooperative feeders, often foraging in groups.

Song & Calls

This species is mostly silent but can emit a variety of low-pitched calls, including a deep, quiet croak in flight and deep "moooo" calls at breeding colonies.


Breeding occurs in large colonies with nests varying from stick nests in trees to ground scrapes lined with grass and other materials. The female lays 1 to 4 eggs, with incubation lasting 29 to 36 days. Chicks fledge at 65 to 75 days of age, with sexual maturity reached at 3 to 4 years.

Similar Species

The great white pelican can be confused with the Dalmatian pelican, which has greyish-white plumage and a fully feathered face. The spot-billed and pink-backed pelicans are smaller and have different plumage and bill colors.

Diet and Feeding

Their diet consists mainly of fish, with daily requirements ranging from 0.9 to 1.4 kg. They feed cooperatively, using their pouches to scoop up water and fish, then contracting the pouch to drain the water and retain the fish. They may also opportunistically consume other birds' chicks and, in some cases, have been observed eating pigeons.

Conservation status

The great white pelican is listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List. It is protected under various international agreements and occurs within numerous Important Bird Areas and Special Protection Areas. However, it faces threats from overfishing, habitat loss, and human disturbance.

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Great White Pelicans on Birda


More Pelicans

A photo of a Australian Pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus)

Australian Pelican

Pelecanus conspicillatus
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