The Australian Pelican A Magnificent Waterbird with a Colossal Bill

Australian Pelican in flight over blue water

The Australian Pelican: An Important Part of the Australian Ecosystem

The Australian pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus) or Spectacled Pelican is a remarkable Australian waterbird known for its enormous bill and unique adaptations. Native to Australia and New Guinea, this large bird is a captivating sight, whether soaring gracefully above inland lakes and rivers or plunge-diving for fish in coastal waters.

Pelecanus From Greek pelekan, meaning pelican conspicillatus From Latin conspicillatus, meaning spectacled.

What is a group of pelicans called?

A group of pelicans can be referred to by a number of different terms, depending on the context and the species of pelican involved. Some common group names for pelicans include:

  • A gulp or scoop of pelicans: This term can be used to refer to a group of pelicans that are feeding, as they are known for scooping up large quantities of fish and other prey in their distinctive expandable pouches.
  • A pod or float of pelicans: This can be used to refer to a group of pelicans that are resting or swimming together on the water.
  • A flight or squadron of pelicans: Used to refer to a group of pelicans that are flying together in formation.
  • A colony or rookery of pelicans: This term can be used to refer to a group of pelicans that are nesting or breeding together in a specific area.

The most common term for a group of pelicans is probably a “flock,” which can be used to refer to a group of pelicans or other birds in any context.

Physical Characteristics and Adaptations

One of the most striking features of the Australian pelican is its colossal bill, which holds the record for being the longest of any living bird. The bill can measure up to an astonishing 50 cm (20 in) in length, although the average size is slightly smaller. This impressive appendage is not just for show; it is a highly specialized tool for catching and consuming fish.

The bill is equipped with a large, expandable pouch that can hold up to 13 liters (3.4 US gal) of water and fish. When hunting, the pelican plunges its open bill into the water, scooping up fish and water in one swift motion. As it lifts its head, the pelican contracts its pouch, draining the water and leaving only the captured fish inside. The bird then tilts its head back and swallows its catch whole.

In addition to its remarkable bill, the Australian pelican has other unique adaptations. Its webbed feet are well-suited for swimming and diving, allowing the bird to efficiently navigate through the water in search of prey. The pelican’s plumage is predominantly white, with black wings that create a striking contrast when the bird is in flight. During the breeding season, the bare skin around the eyes and on the bill becomes brightly colored, ranging from orange to blue and pink.

Australian Pelican
Australian Pelican up high on a street light

Distribution and Habitat

The Australian Pelican is widespread across Australia and Tasmania. It is also found in Amboina and New Guinea, and occasionally in New Zealand. These birds inhabit a variety of aquatic environments, including large lakes, reservoirs, rivers, estuaries, swamps, and coastal lagoons. They are adaptable and can thrive in both freshwater and saltwater habitats, as long as there is an adequate supply of fish.

Australian pelicans are not migratory in the strict sense, but they do follow food availability and may travel considerable distances in search of suitable feeding grounds. During times of drought, when inland water sources dry up, pelicans will move to coastal areas or other regions where water is still available.

Australian Pelican Distribution CC BY-SA 4.0
Australian Pelican Distribution CC BY-SA 4.0

Social Behavior and Breeding

These pelicans are typically seen in flocks, frequenting estuaries, coastal mudflats, and adjacent islands, as well as rivers and lakes in inland areas. They are often observed fishing in shallow waters or resting on mud or sandflats. While they are agile in water and air, they exhibit a waddling gait on land.

Australian pelicans are highly social birds, particularly when feeding or breeding. They are known to work together when hunting, herding fish into shallow water where they can be more easily caught. This cooperative behavior allows the pelicans to maximize their fishing efficiency and share the bounty among the group.

Breeding typically occurs in large colonies on islands or in sheltered areas near water bodies. The timing of the breeding season varies depending on the location, with pelicans in tropical regions nesting during the winter months (north of 26°S), while those in southern Australia breed in the spring. Breeding may also be triggered by rainfall in inland areas.

The breeding season runs from September to March in eastern Australia and Tasmania.

Nests are simple, shallow depressions in the ground, sometimes lined with grass or other vegetation. Typically, two or three eggs are laid, which are dull white or dirty yellowish-white, often with an irregular coating of lime and usually nest-stained which are incubated by both parents for 32-35 days. The newly hatched chicks are naked and helpless, but they quickly develop a coat of grey down feathers. In a behavior known as siblicide, the larger chick often outcompetes its sibling for food, leading to the death of the smaller one.

For the first two weeks, the chicks are fed regurgitated liquid by their parents. As they grow, their diet transitions to whole fish and invertebrates. The young pelicans fledge at around three months of age and join feeding pods within the colony.

Feeding Habits and Diet

Australian pelicans are primarily piscivorous, meaning they mainly feed on fish. They are opportunistic predators and will consume a wide variety of fish species, including introduced species such as goldfish, European carp, and European perch. When native fish are available, pelicans seem to prefer the perch Leiopotherapon unicolor.

In addition to fish, Australian pelicans also feed on a range of other aquatic animals, such as insects, crustaceans (especially yabbies and prawns), and occasionally birds, reptiles, amphibians, and small mammals. They have even been reported to consume small dogs, demonstrating their adaptability and opportunistic nature.

Pelicans typically hunt by swimming on the surface of the water and plunge-diving when they spot potential prey. They may also engage in kleptoparasitism, stealing food from other waterbirds like cormorants.

Conservation Status and Threats

The Australian pelican is currently classified as a species of Least Concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The species has a large range and a relatively stable population, with no immediate threats that could lead to a significant decline.

However, like many other waterbirds, Australian pelicans face challenges related to habitat loss and degradation, particularly the destruction of wetlands and the impact of human activities on water quality. Pelicans can also be sensitive to disturbance during the breeding season, and recreational activities near nesting colonies may have negative effects on breeding success.

Despite these potential threats, Australian pelicans have shown a remarkable ability to adapt to artificial water bodies, such as reservoirs, as long as there is minimal boating activity. The species is also legally protected, which helps to ensure its ongoing conservation.

The Australian pelican is a magnificent native waterbird that captures the imagination with its enormous bill, unique adaptations, and fascinating behavior. From its record-breaking beak to its cooperative hunting strategies and social breeding colonies, this species is a true marvel of the avian world.

As we continue to learn more about the Australian pelican and its role in the ecosystems it inhabits, it is important that we work to protect the wetlands and water bodies upon which these birds depend. By conserving the habitats that support Australian pelicans and other waterbirds, we can ensure that future generations will have the opportunity to witness the grandeur of these remarkable creatures in the wild.