Australian Bush Birds
Australian Pelican  -  Pelecanus conspicillatus
Typical group of swimming Pelicans.
Pelican Pelican
Left. Pelican adopting a low profile while stalking fish.
Right. Routine swimming with neck extended; note the pink throat pouch.
Pelican walking Walking towards an open bait-bucket a fisherman has left unattended..
Australian Pelican - page 2
map map The Australian Pelican - Pelecanus conspicillatus - is a large black and white bird (1.6 to 1.8 metres long, wingspan 2.3 to 2.5 metres) with long bill and large throat pouch. Eye black with yellow ring. Legs and webbed feet are grey. Females similar to males with a shorter bill. Breeding birds have a yellow patch on the breast and a deep pink bill. There are no geographical variations. Wild pelicans live between 10 and possibly 25 plus years.

They normally walk and swim with head and neck extended; in flight the head is tucked back and when stalking fish the bird swims with the head held low, presumably to make it harder to see from underwater.

Pelicans weigh 3 to 14 kilograms; they have an extremely light skeleton making up only ten per cent of the body weight. All pelicans have a layer of bubbles under most of their torso, believed to be for flotation and insulation.

Pelicans mainly eat fish but will also eat crustaceans, tadpoles and turtles. During periods of starvation pelicans have been reported to eat seagulls; the gull is held underwater until it drowns then is swallowed headfirst. Pelicans also rob other birds of their prey; they willingly accept handouts from humans and often cluster around fish-cleaning stations expecting fisher-people to throw them unwanted fish scraps. Given a chance they will take bait from unguarded bait-buckets.

Pelican Pelican
Pelicans low over the water. The left photograph shows the head drawn back in typical flight attitude.
Pelican Pelican
Pelican alighting on water; on the left the feet have been extended to break the impact; on the right the feet have broken the surface and the angle of the wings have been altered to provide maximum braking. The dark patch on the breast indicates a breeding bird.
Australian Pelican - page 3
When fishing, the sensitive bill helps locate fish underwater; a hook at the end of the upper mandible is probably used for gripping slippery items. The pouch is used as a net to enclose fish; once something is caught the pelican draws the pouch into its breast expelling the water; then the prey is juggled into head-first swallowing position and swallowed in one gulp. The pouch is used to catch food thrown by humans and has been used to catch rainwater.

Pelicans fish alone or in groups, sometimes containing many hundreds of birds. A flock of pelicans can drive fish into concentrated masses in shallow water or surround then in ever-decreasing circles.

Pelicans live on bodies of water containing fish, preferably free of vegetation, and have little concern about the surroundings. Found throughout Australia wherever conditions are suitable on freshwater, estuarine and marine wetlands and waterways including lakes, swamps and rivers. They are highly mobile in searching out suitable areas of water. After heavy inland rain fills usually dry lakes in Australia's interior pelican numbers at coastal haunts become depleted as the birds move inland while the lakes contain water.

Pelicans are not capable of sustained flapping flight but are superb soarers and can remain airborne for 24 hours, covering hundreds of kilometres. Using thermals they can easily reach 1,000 metres altitude and heights of 3,000 metres have been recorded. When thermals are available they can travel long distances at speed of up to 56 kilometres an hour.

Pelicans filling in time preening and just standing around while the tide conditions are unsuitable for fishing.
Pelican Pelican
Left. Resting with head under wing. Right. Standing in the rain with head drawn down.
Australian Pelican - page 4
Australian pelicans begin breeding at two or three years of age. Breeding season varies, in the winter in tropical areas and late spring in parts of southern Australia; any time after rainfall is suitable in inland areas. Breeding colonies are permanent or ephemeral. Courtship begins with a female leading up to eight potential mates around the colony; the males threaten each other and pick up small items which they toss into the air and catch several times. Both sexes perform "pouch-rippling" in which the bill is clapped shut several times a second making the pouch ripple. The pursuit stage ends when there is only one male left and the female leads him to a nest site. The nest is a scrape in the ground prepared by the female with her bill and feet; lining is any scrape of vegetation or feathers within reach of the nest. Grassy platforms are built at Lake Alexandrina in South Australia.

Egg-laying begins within three days and one to three eggs are laid two to three days apart. Eggs are chalky white measuring 93 by 57 millimetres. Eggs are incubated on the parents' feet; both parents share incubation.

Eggs hatch after 32 to 35 days. The first-hatched chick is larger than the others and receives most of the food; it may kill its siblings or they may die of starvation. For the first two weeks chicks are fed regurgitated liquid then fed fish and invertebrates. A newly hatched pelican has a large bill, bulging eyes and skin that looks like small-grained plastic bubble-wrap. Skin around the face is mottled with black and eye colour varies from white to dark brown

After about a month chicks leave the nest to form creches of up to 100 birds; they remain in the creches for about two months learning to fly and to live independently.

During courtship the bill and pouch change colour for a short while; the intensity usually fades by the time incubation starts. The forward half of the pouch become bright salmon pink, the skin of the pouch around the throat turns chrome yellow. Parts of the top and base of the bill change to cobalt blue and a black diagonal stripe appears from the base to the tip.

Pelican Pelican
Left: Soaring Pelican viewed from below.
Right: Intently watching fishermen hoping for a handout. If two or more pelicans stare at something it will be food.
Immature pelican
Immature pelican with brown plumage.
Australian Pelican - page 5
Pelicans are covered in species specific lice. Animal rescuers handling distressed pelicans sometimes get covered with these pelican lice which can be uncomfortable but which jump off humans after about an hour. Lice from pelicans is not responsible for any form of 'swimmers itch'.

There are seven species of pelicans around the world, one is native to Australia.