During the day, pelicans will loaf around on almost anything they can get their feathers on. You can see them dozing on docks, snoozing on pilings, or taking a relaxing siesta on piers.
When the sun goes down, brown pelicans often seek refuge in offshore sites, unless the moon is bright enough for them to continue hunting.
Pelicans often sleep on rafts or floating platforms on the Galapagos Islands.
In other parts of the world, pelicans can be found sleeping in trees and even on the top of street lights.
The only place you’ll see a pelican napping on the water is “along the Pacific Coast of South America from southern Ecuador to Chile.” This is where the Peruvian pelican lives and it’s the only pelican species known to sleep while floating on the water.
Not all pelican species are found close to coastal waters. While the brown pelican never strays more than 20km from shore, the pink backed pelican has no such concerns.
It lives in swamps and freshwater systems throughout Africa and may live its entire life without ever seeing the sea.
Dalmatian pelicans are also freshwater birds, in fact, they’re the world’s largest species of freshwater bird. The Dalmatian pelican can be found on lakes, rivers, estuaries, and in low-lying wetland areas.
Like most pelican species, the Dalmatian pelican has distinct roosting and loafing areas. It utilizes the loafing areas during the day as resting places and for “comfort activities” like preening.
The roosting site, on the other hand, is mainly used as a safe refuge and place to get a good night’s rest.
How do Pelicans Sleep?
Regardless of where they sleep, all pelicans sleep similarly. Most sleep on land, either standing on both their feet or resting on their breast and stomach.
Once their bulky bodies are situated, they tilt their beaks to one side before resting their heads sideways on one of their shoulders.
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Types of Pelicans
There are eight different types of pelican occupying every continent except Antarctica.
#1 Brown Pelicans
Although brown pelicans are migratory, some colonies spend the entire year on the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and the southeastern coast.
Others spend the winters in the comparative warmth of central California, before heading to the Northwest and mid-Atlantic coasts for winter.
The brown pelican, also known as the Pelecanus occidentalis, is one of the most common pelican breeds, and one of only two that dive for their food. Pelicans are carnivores primarily feeding on fish, with the occasional crustacean thrown in for variety.
Brown pelicans are the only species that “can spot fish over the ocean as high as 65 feet” and then execute a perfect headfirst dive to secure their prey.
When they hit the water, the pelican’s large throat pouch expands, filling up with around three gallons of water.
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But, of course, the pelican doesn’t swallow this water – if it did, it would never take off again! Instead, it strains the water out of the sides of its bill, before tipping back its head and swallowing its prey whole.
#2 Spot Billed Pelican
Also known as the grey pelican, the spot-billed pelican is slightly larger than the brown pelican, reaching up to 13 lb, compared to the brown pelican’s 6.
Spot-billed pelicans breed in Southern Asia, using large inland and coastal waters. They build tree nests in colonies of hundreds, sometimes building 15 nests in a single tree!
#3 American White Pelican
These large, rather disheveled-looking birds have a distinct bump on their beaks that makes them easy to identify.
Both female and male pelicans grow these bumps, known as caruncles, to “attract an ideal breeding partner.”
Although not as big as the Dalmatian pelican, they can reach weights of around 20 to 30 lbs with a wing span up to 9 feet, making it “one of the largest birds in North America.”
#4 Great White Pelican
Great white pelicans are very similar to American whites but live in southeastern Europe, Asia, and Africa.
These freshwater giants live in shallow swamps and are amongst the world’s largest flying birds.
The great white pelican migrates to Eastern Europe and Asia for nesting and flies in a classic V-shaped formation when traveling long distances. Despite their size, these birds are surprisingly speedy.
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They can reach speeds of around 6kph when swimming and can exceed 60kph in the air!
#5 Australian Pelican
Australian pelicans are opportunistic feeders, whose diet consists primarily of fish but may also include crustaceans, turtles, and tadpoles.
They are not averse to receiving handouts either and can frequently be seen begging for food around city piers and fishing ports.
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When desperate, the Australian pelican will even eat seagulls and ducklings, holding them under the water before swallowing them head first.
#6 Peruvian Pelican
Once considered a subspecies of the brown pelican, but was subsequently declared a species in its own right.
Although the two share some similarities, they can be distinguished by size (the Peruvian is about twice the size of the brown pelican) and color.
For example, the Peruvian pelican has a blue throat poach, whilst the brown pelicans’ is olive to red.
Not that you’ll ever see the two side by side as the Peruvian pelican sticks to the “west coasts of Peru and Chile,” while the brown pelican is found along the Gulf Coast.
#7 Pink Backed Pelican
The pink backed pelican is one of the smallest pelican species, reaching weights of between 9 to 15.5 lb. Unlike other types of pelicans, they feed almost exclusively on fish and forage alone, rather than in groups.
Breeding can occur at any time during the year, but most commonly occurs at the rainy season’s climax.
All the females in a single colony will lay their eggs at the same time, building their nests so close together that they actually touch.
Like some types of penguins, pink backed pelicans use their feet to keep their eggs warm.
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#8 Dalmatian Pelican
Dalmatians are the largest and rarest pelican species in the world. Averaging around 30 lb, they can have a wingspan of up to 11.5 feet, which is just a little shorter than that of the wandering albatross which has “the largest known wingspan of any living bird.”
“According to IUCN’s Red List, the Dalmatian pelican total population size is about 10,000-13,900 individuals.”
Compare that to the brown pelican population which hovers around 650,000, and you soon realize how few Dalmatian pelicans there are left in the world.
In addition to using their throat pouches to catch fish, Dalmatian pelicans also use them “as a cooling mechanism.” During hot weather, they’ll open their beaks and then pulsate their pouch “to speed up the rate of cooling by evaporation.”
Most pelicans are seasonally monogamous, so they will pair up with a mate and remain with them for the breeding season.
Within a colony of brown pelicans, the male chooses the nesting site and then attempts to attract the female with a complex series of head maneuvers.
Other pelican species have more complex mating rituals involving “pouch ripping.” This practice involves “clapping the bill shut a few times and then allowing the pouch to ripple, much like a flag in the wind.”
Although the male pelican often chooses the nest site, both pair members are responsible for building the nest. The white pelican rakes up sand, gravel, and soil to create a shallow depression.
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Brown pelicans also share the nest building responsibilities, with the male collecting the building materials, in the form of grass, reeds, and sticks, that the female then weaves into a nest. Pelicans nest on the ground, cliffs, or in low trees like mangroves.
Once the nest is complete, the female lays two to three eggs which both parents then care for throughout the 30-day incubation period. After the baby pelicans hatch, they rely on their parents for food, eating regurgitated fish until they fledge at around 12 weeks.
Most pelicans reach sexual maturity at around 3 to 5 years old, although a few species get there a little faster and start breeding after just one or two years.
They have a lifespan of between 10 to 30 years in the wild, although some individuals manage to exceed this.
The oldest recorded wild pelican lived to 43 years, but that’s nothing compared to the Australian pelican, Percy, who lived at Wellington Zoo in New Zealand until he was 62 years old, making him one of the world’s longest-living birds.
Despite the longevity of adult pelicans, juveniles struggle to survive the first year of life. Sibling rivalry is fierce in a pelican colony and nestlings will often bully their younger siblings, pecking them on the head, or even pushing them out of the nest.
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Even if they survive those first 12 weeks, they then need to catch prey to feed themselves. Unfortunately, juveniles aren’t as adept at this as adult brown pelicans who are successful on “two-thirds of their dives.”
As a result of these pressures, only “about 30% of brown pelicans survive past the first year.” Life doesn’t get much easier either, and only around 2% of all brown pelicans make it past 10 years old.
Pelicans are gregarious birds that generally live together in large colonies also known as pods, squadrons, and scoops.
Not only do they breed colonially, but they also travel in flocks and hunt cooperatively. Only the brown and Peruvian pelicans dive for their food.
The other pelican species swim together in groups, beating their wings on the surface to drive the fish into shallow waters where they can simply scoop them up.
The brown and Peruvian pelicans have special adaptations that enable them to dive without injuring themselves. For starters, they have air sacs beneath the skin on their breasts that act like cushions.
To protect their esophagus and trachea, they also rotate their bodies slightly to the left when diving.
Regardless of how they hunt, all pelicans eat fish, primarily small fish that gather in schools in shallow water.
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Adult brown pelicans have few natural enemies, although some species of shark, sea lions, and orcas will all target them if they get the opportunity. There are a number of predators that will steal eggs and baby pelicans.
Coyotes are one of the main threats to brown pelican populations, along with wild dogs and cats. Raccoons, alligators, and other reptiles will also target the eggs, but the biggest threat facing the brown pelican in recent years has been humans.
Ground-nesting pelicans “are highly sensitive to human disturbances at their breeding colonies and readily abandon nests.” As a result, “human disturbance and destruction of foraging and breeding habitat have been major threats” to brown pelican populations.
Brown pelicans also suffered as a result of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 and the decision to use pollutants such as DDT. While the brown pelican has staged a remarkable comeback, other species haven’t been as lucky.
The Peruvian pelican is classified as an endangered species after suffering “dramatic declines in the El Niño year of 1998.” Although the population is now stable, it could “suffer similar declines in the future if conditions were repeated.”
Pelicans live on every continent in the world except Antarctica. Brown pelicans are predominantly coastal birds that live throughout the Gulf coast, while the American white pelican dominates the interior of North America.
Peruvian pelicans prefer the west coast of South America, while the Dalmatian pelican makes it home in swamps and wetlands throughout Central Eurasia.
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Unsurprisingly, the Australian pelican is found only in Australia where it colonizes large expanses of open water, such as lakes, swamps, lagoons, and rivers.
Two types of pelican live in Africa – the pink backed and the Great White. Both species prefer freshwater habitats, although the pink backed will also utilize coastal waters, especially in South Africa.
The Great white pelican is found throughout sub-Saharan Africa, where it thrives in a variety of open water wetland habitats.
Do Brown Pelicans Migrate?
Almost all North American and North European pelicans migrate, moving to warmer regions in the winter.
The southern species found in Asia and Africa travel only short distances, as they have little or no cold weather to contend with.
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Pelicans have existed on earth for around 30 million years and, while much has changed in that time, its unique beak and throat pouch combination remains much the same.
Although pelicans live in widely varied habitats, all of them are water-dependent and live on a diet of fish and other aquatic animals.
Only the Peruvian pelican is known to sleep on water, with all other species either resting on the ground or roosting in a tree.
Most pelican populations are relatively stable, having recovered from previous threats. Only the Dalmatian pelican remains on the IUCN’s red list, which is impressive given how close the brown pelican came to extinction just a few years ago.
Whatever you think of the pelican, you’ve got to admit, it’s an intriguing species that’s clearly stood the test of time despite having a beak that holds more than its belly can!
Nicky is a British adventurer and animal lover who spends her time exploring the natural world and writing about her experiences. Whether on horseback, underwater, running, hiking or just standing with a fishing rod in hand, she embraces everything her adopted home of South Africa has to offer.