The Great White Pelican- Insights On The Wingspan And More

The Great White Pelican is a majestic bird to look and marvel at and is one of the heaviest birds capable of flight. Together with the Pink Backed pelican, the Great White Pelican is the only bird in the pelican order found in Africa with a large wingspan.

These birds are magnificent to spot in the wild, so let’s get some insights about pelicans in general and on the great white pelicans in particular.

Updated 01/12/23

General Info on Pelicans

There are 8 different species of pelicans across the world namely: Australian, American White, Dalmatian, Peruvian, Brown, Spot-Billed, Pink Backed and the Great White pelican.

1. What do Pelicans look like?

All pelicans have webbed feet with four toes; unlike other birds, large throat pouches and large wings.

They also have extremely long necks and a large gular pouch that is essential to their feeding habits.

These gular pouches are incredibly flexible and will easily fit about 11 litres (3 gallons) of water. Their webbed feet with four forward-facing toes make them really strong and graceful swimmers, but clumsy on land.

Pelicans have a large wingspan, one of the largest wingspan among birds, standing at 3 metres (9 feet).

They are also rather big, standing between 1 m (3 ft.) and 2 m (6 ft.) tall, and weighing from 4.5 kg (9.9 lbs) to 13.6 kg (29.9 lbs).

Their weight makes them some of the heaviest birds capable of flight, and their impressive wingspan enables them to soar quite gracefully.

2. Where do Pelicans live?

Pelicans can be found on all continents apart from Antarctica.

They are rarely found in deep ocean waters, frigid polar regions, and oceanic islands with the exception of the Galapagos islands, and prefer warm to temperate regions.

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3. What do Pelicans eat?

Their diet mainly consists of different types of fish, but their feeding habits differ from species to species.

They are gregarious hunters ( social and work together), and will sometimes herd fish like sheep, by beating their wings against the water surface, and then scooping them into their gular pouch.

This pouch is made from flexible skin on the lower beak and is an essential tool when they are feeding.

As they fish, they scoop the fish out of the water into the water.

As you can see in the video below, they can sometimes have quite large prey!

This process involves a lot of water getting into their gular pouches, this water is drained out by tilting their heads, and then they swallow the fish caught.

Their diet is made up of a lot of fish, but they can be termed opportunistic hunters and will devour seagull chicks, crustaceans, tadpoles and young turtles.

4. How do Pelicans breed?

Pelicans are social animals and will nest in the hundreds, in breeding pairs.

During the breeding season, birds will pair up and remain monogamous for as long as that breeding season lasts, after which they go their separate ways.

Females usually lay between 3 to 4 eggs, and the incubation period is between 28 and 36 days.

The parents take turns incubating the eggs which will hatch in the order in which they were laid.

The first chick to hatch always matures earlier than the rest and will even attack its siblings to get more food; survival of the fittest it seems.

To feed their chicks, parents will open their mouths wide for the chicks to reach down to the gullet and get regurgitated food.

And this is no easy task, as chicks must be fed multiple times daily, sometimes up to 30 times in a single day!!! The young reach maturity from 3 to 4 years.

More Information On The Great White Pelican

Now, you have an understanding of what pelicans look like, and their general behaviour.

Now let’s take a closer look at one particular pelican species; The Great White Pelican which breeds in Southeast Europe, Asia and some Northern parts of Africa, and spends its non-breeding season South of the Sahara.

1. What do Great White Pelicans look like?

First off, these are huge birds with both males and females having a wingspan of up to 3 metres (9.8 feet).

This is an impressive wingspan, that is needed to help keep these birds airborne with the males weighing 9-15 kg ( 19.8-33 lbs), and the females being smaller weighing in at 5-9 kg(11-19.8 lbs).

On the ground, the males stand at 1.7 m (5.5 ft) and the females at 1.4 m (4.5 ft).

Other than their impressive wings, they have pink, short stubby webbed feet, and short tails.

Their impressive bills are sky blue on the top part, and on the bottom part with the pouch, yellow, with a central red stripe that ends in a small hook. Around the eyes is a bare patch that is pink or yellow.

the great white pelican

Depending on the season, the chest and throat will be yellow, orange or light pink during the non-breeding season.

During the breeding season, the male will have a pinkish hue on the face while the female will have an orange/yellowish face.

2. What is the diet of a Great White Pelican like?

Well, its diet mainly consists of fish such as the common carp in Europe, Arabian tooth carp in India, Mullets in China, and Tilapia in Africa.

The fish targeted are fairly large in the weight range of 500-600 g (1.1-1.3 lb), with fish as heavy as 1.8 kg (4 lb), being taken depending on seasonal and regional abundance.

Their daily intake of food ranges from 0.9-1.4 kg (2 – 3.1 lb) of fish, and will leave the roost daily in search of food early in the morning, and have been documented to travel over 100 km (62 miles) in search of food.

Their diet is not restricted to fish alone as they are quite opportunistic, and will feed on other bird chicks, that weigh up to 2 kg (4.4 lb).

They prey on cape gannet chicks, and cape cormorant chicks and eggs, which are fed to their chicks.

During lean times, they feed on full-grown seagulls, and will hold them underwater to drown them before eating them headfirst, also pigeons and ducklings.

They will also feed on crustaceans, tadpoles, and turtles and will accept handouts from humans.

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3. How do Great White Pelicans behave?

Great White Pelicans are gregarious and will do some things communally such as flying, migrating, breeding and feeding.

While fishing, the birds will swim in a horseshoe shape, herding fish towards the shallower parts, after which they feed by scooping fish into their mouths.

After fishing and feeding, they will roost in trees, on the ground and on rocks, grooming and preening themselves for the next time they go into the water.

As they are migratory birds, their Autumn migration South is between August and October, while the spring migration North starts in April.

During this period they migrate an average of 133 -160 km ( 83-99 miles) in a day, travelling at an average speed of 30-44.5 km/hr (18 – 27 mph).

The duration of the migration will be dictated by the size of the flock. During departure flights, flocks will range from 2 to 63 birds and arrival flocks will have about 2 to 75 birds.

Because of their impressive wingspan, they have difficulty taking off.

Once in the air, they rely on thermal drafts to gain and maintain height. During flight, they fly in a V-formation with synchronised wing flapping, which helps in reducing the energy used in flight.

4. How do Great White Pelicans breed?

Great White Pelicans are mature enough to breed after reaching 3 years. Unlike other pelican species, they form monogamous Pairs that do last more than one breeding season, though one mate may not be as loyal and will mate with other pelicans in the site or season.

The breeding season in Europe starts from April to August, and for those birds resident in Africa, breeding is annual in three waves. They will make use of previous breeding grounds, but if it is lost, they will establish new breeding sites.

The females usually lay 1-3 eggs, laid several days apart, which will hatch in 29-36 days. The first chick to hatch is usually the only chick to survive into maturity as it will edge out its siblings in the fight for resources.

During the first week of a chick’s existence, it will be fed by both parents regularly, and the parents will pour food directly into their mouths.

But after 7 days, the chick is able to eat from its parent’s gular pouch.

5. Where do Great White Pelicans live?

The Great White Pelican can be found near alkaline, saline, freshwater lakes, deltas, shallow marshes, warm lagoons and large rivers.

They are ground nesters and will make use of reed beds, grasses, rocky ground, wet swamps, mudflats, and sandbanks, depending on what is most abundantly available.

These birds can migrate impressive distances between their non-breeding grounds in Sub-Saharan Africa and breeding grounds in Europe and Asia.

During the non-breeding season, its distribution is spread from West Africa in Senegal, to East Africa in Ethiopia, and as far South as South Africa.

6. Are they under any threat?

They are listed as the least concern on the IUCN red list. This is a result of their geographic distribution and they are not under any major threats.

In latest years, human-related activities have led to a decline in their population such as the release of heavy metals in waterways, pesticides such as DDT, sewage and human disturbances.

Also, climate change is leading to lower levels in some of the water bodies that these birds habit, which lead to a reduction in the number of available fish.

In the wild, their average lifespan is at 15 years, but some can live as far as 28 years. Though the record for the longest-lived pelican was 51 years, for a great white in captivity.

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FAQS On Pelicans.

1. How fast is a great white pelican?

The Great White Pelican has a top-flight speed of 65km/h (40 mph). Their fully webbed feet also ensure that they are pretty strong swimmers, and can reach up to speeds of 6 km/h (3.7 mph) on the water.

2. How old do pelicans live?

In the wild, pelicans live between 10-43 years and significantly more in captivity.

3. Do pelicans become blind?

Pelicans can go blind, but it is not from what you think,( hitting the water hard), rather it is from avian botulism, which comes from chemical pollution or dead fish.

4. Are pelicans aggressive towards humans?

Pelicans are huge birds, and that in itself poses a challenge, but they are docile creatures. When injured or cornered is when they get quite aggressive and may inflict some bodily damage.

5. Does a pelican bite hurt?

Yes, pelicans can and do bite, but unless you rub your hands, up and down the edge of the beak, then it shouldn’t hurt. The tip, and inside edges of the bill are quite sharp.

6. How long can pelicans fly for?

Pelicans have short and square tails, and the wings are long and broad, making them perfect for soaring on thermals.

Even though they are great at sustained flapping, using thermals, they can stay airborne for 24 hours.

What is the migration route of the Great White Pelican?

The great white pelican (Pelecanus onocrotalus) is a migratory bird that follows a distinct migration route. These pelicans are known for their long-distance flights between their breeding and wintering grounds. Here is a general overview of their migration route:

  1. Breeding Grounds: Great white pelicans breed in large colonies, often in shallow lakes and wetlands in southeastern Europe, Asia, and Africa. Key breeding areas include countries like Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and various African nations.
  2. Wintering Grounds: During the winter, great white pelicans migrate to warmer regions. They often travel long distances to reach their wintering grounds, which are typically in more temperate climates. Common wintering areas include parts of the Middle East, India, China, and Africa.
  3. Key Migration Stopovers: Along their migration route, great white pelicans make stopovers at suitable feeding and resting sites. These sites are often wetlands, lakes, or coastal areas where they can find food and rest before continuing their journey.

My Final Conclusion.

I hope that you enjoyed this article on pelicans in general and the great white pelican in particular.

If you have any more questions, please feel free to ask them in the comment section down below or join me on my social media channels or Facebook group.

I wish you happy travels!

Kind regards,


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4 thoughts on “The Great White Pelican- Insights On The Wingspan And More”

  1. I have lived near the ocean almost my entire life.  I have always seen pelicans and have been fascinated by them.  I am presently living in on the central coast of California.  Pelicans can be seen anywhere near the water usually in two or more.  I love to watch that body collapse and dive into the water.  The birds are so huge that is is hard to imagine they can fly.  It is sad that I have really known nothing about pelicans after all these years of seeing them until I read your article.  I do not even know what kind of pelican I saw in Florida or now see in California.  I am going to find out now that you have given me this great information on the Great White Pelican and pelicans in general.


    • Hi Jim

      I’m happy to have informed you a little bit more about pelicans and I hope you will enjoy them for many years to come, happy birdwatching!

      Kind regards,


  2. So I know this isn’t an African swallow but my first thought when I read the title was Monty Python’s Quest for the Holy Grail.

    But in all seriousness I absolutely love to see someone’s passion for the earth, nature, and its creatures be written out and brought to life.

    I love the earth and every form of beauty it offers to us, and the creatures within it are some of the most interesting and beautiful sights to behold.

    • hahaha Mark, that is actually funny, Monty Python lol!

      Thanks for brightening up the day!

      I wish you happy birdwatching!



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