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Regions > African Savanna > Pink-backed pelican.

Pink-backed pelican.

Location at the Zoo: African Savanna











Scientific Name:

Pelecanus rufescens


: The standout feature of this bird is the pouch, which is pink when expanded. It hangs from a yellow beak that is long, narrow, and broader towards the outer end. On the crown and nape grows a bushy crest that can stand wildly upright so that the pelican looks as if it has been shocked. Black lores sit in front of a pale-pink orbital ring, surrounding dark-brown eyes.

The pink back and rump can only be seen when the wings are unfolded. Otherwise most plumage is pale grey, though the primaries are slightly darker. In flight, the underwing is buffy grey, bisected lengthwise by a paler streak. Though short, the tail is broad, carrying as it does 22 pinkish-grey feathers. Likewise this species has an unusual number of secondaries: 32.

Short legs vary from grey to yellow to reddish orange and are a pinkish red in breeding season. The toes are referred to as totipalmate because all four are connected by webbing. Juveniles are brownish-white above and below. The rump and upper tail coverts are white.

Length: 125-132 cm
Wingspan: 2.4 m
Bill: 29-38 cm
Weight: 5.5 kg (This is the second smallest of the eight pelican species)


: In sub-Saharan Africa south of a line from Senegal to Ethiopia. Their range extends up the Red Sea going as far as extreme southwest Egypt as well as Yemen and the southern half of Saudi Arabia’s coastline. The southern limit is approximately the Tropic of Capricorn.


: Arboreal for nesting and roosting and aquatic for feeding. For feeding, the pink-backed pelican haunts quiet backwaters including weedy lagoons, lakes, swamps, and slow-moving rivers. Floodplains near river mouths as well as sheltered coast in bays and estuaries are also hangouts. It avoids the open sea. As well as saline water, it can also tolerate alkaline.


: Feeds mainly on fish, preferring cichlids, but will go for anything between 80 and 290 grams though it can swallow up to 450-gram specimens. In the other direction, it likes fry. It will also eat small invertebrates and amphibians that it comes across. They move inland when locusts are plentiful.

Reproduction and Development

: Breeding can take place year round though it usually starts late in the wet season. Courtship involves pointing (directing bill towards mate) and bill clapping. The male will also advertise himself on a branch. Copulation begins shortly after pairing and continues three to ten days until egg laying begins. Both parents pile up twigs and grass into a rough nest, 10 to 50 metres up a tree. Pairs generally last but a single season.

Two, occasionally three, white eggs are laid. Incubation extends five weeks. The egg is brooded above or below its parents’ webbed feet. Changeovers between parents may occur anywhere from three hours to three days apart and are often accompanied by conspicuous displays. Brick red is the colour of the naked hatchling, but a white down coat appears quickly. A chick feeds by roughly thrusting its bill deep into a parent’s gullet. There it finds partially digested fish, which it gorges on. On this rich diet, growth is quick and the juvenile may outweigh its parents by the time it's ready to fly. By day 12, feathers start to grow out. By day 30, the body is mostly covered, but it takes another month before it is fully cloaked in true feathers. Adult plumage is not complete until the bird is two years old. At about day 40, the youngster recognizes its parents. It doesn’t fly until sometime between its tenth and twelfth week. The parents then stop feeding though the juvenile may hang around nearby.


: The pink-backed pelican often feeds alone in vegetation it can hide in. It holds its head high, attempting to spot prey. When it does, it retracts its head, floats up to its prey and quickly lunges. In doing so the pouch takes in a lot of water, up to eight litres. The bird has to shake the water out, which can take up to a minute. The fish is then swallowed whole. It has a 40 to 50% success rate with this method. Like other pelican species, this one can also fish cooperatively. The group lines up and drives the fish towards shallow water. They open their wings every 15 to 20 seconds to panic the fish and then plunge their bills into the water. If a large shoal of fish is found near the surface, the pelicans just swim around, feeding in a frenzy. They hunt during the cooler morning and evening hours, and may eat up to a kilo of fish a day.

Pelecanus rufescens forms into colonies of up to 500 pairs year round. Many may breed in the same tree that the nests are in. Nests are often close together, even touching each other and become solid with the droppings of the young so they are dismantled the following year and rebuilt. The trees eventually die.

Though a strong flyer, the pink-backed pelican has difficulty with takeoff. It has to run across the water, pounding the surface with its webbed feet while beating its large wings. Eventually it has enough speed to become airborne and it can settle into its pattern of a few wing beats interspersed with glides. During flight, it pulls its head back like a heron. To save energy, flocks fly in a slanted line, each bird taking a turn up front. By taking advantage of updrafts, they become great soarers. This is facilitated by a deep layer of specialized fibres in their breast muscles that keep their wings rigidly horizontal. With this strength, they can travel up to 160 kilometers in their search for food.

Siblicide or starvation keeps this species’ brood size to one though the second hatchling can survive for many weeks before it succumbs to starvation. Survivors live an average of seven and a half years.
After eating, chicks often have what appears to be a seizure that can lead to unconsciousness. They do recover, but the seizure’s cause remains a mystery.

Plumage is waterproof due to oily secretions from the preen gland. The oil is transferred to the feathers using the back of the head. The pink-backed pelican cools itself by using its wings to fan air over the moist skin of the pouch.

Threats to Survival

: With continued development on lakes, floodplains and estuaries, colonies are being forced to relocate. Pelecanus rufescensis is also susceptible to the bioaccumulation of toxins in body tissue, which can lead to reduced reproductive success. Logging of nesting trees has also been a local problem. Epizootics (community diseases) are not infrequent for pelicans. Some authorities believe this species has been extirpated from Madagascar.


: IUCN: Least Concern; CITES: Not Listed

Zoo Diet

: Smelt.