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Regions > African Savanna > Great white pelican

Great white pelican

Location at the Zoo: African Savanna










Pelecanus onocrotalus

Scientific Name:

Pelecanus onocrotalus


: Pelicans are among the largest of all flying birds with African whites being among the largest. Pelicans have large bodies, crested heads, stout pinkish legs set well back on the body for strong paddling, and four-toed feet that are completely webbed (totipalmate). They have large wings and short tails. This species is basically white with grey with pinkish tinges that are produced by the preening gland. Flight feathers are black or blackish from below, while the face and bill are brightly coloured. Feathers taper to a point over the bill. Males are larger than females and have bigger crests.

It is perhaps the long bill and enormous pouch which are its most distinctive features; with the sac attached to the lower bill for its entire length and capable of holding over 13 litres of water. The bill is flat and ends in a sharp nail at the tip for grasping. The pelican’s neck is long, allowing it to rest its large bill on its breast both while flying and at rest. The tongue is small but controls the expansion and contracting of the pouch.

Length: 127 - 183 cm
Weight: 4.5 - 11 kg
Length of Bill: 37.5 - 45 cm
Wing Span: 2.7 m


: Africa, south of Sahara except for portions of South Africa. Also reaches Europe and Asia.


: Large, freshwater savanna lakes and their islands, extensive wetlands, alkaline marshes and mudflats, as well as islands off the south and west coasts. They do not fish in marine waters.


: Mainly fish, but crustaceans are also taken. Flightless young enjoy consuming cormorant eggs.

Reproduction and Development

: Courtship is short. At the onset of the breeding season, which in the tropic regions is prolonged or continuous, featherless parts, especially facial skin and the pouch, take on more vivid colouration. In the male, facial skin becomes pale yellow or pinkish while the female’s becomes a deep orange. This lasts only a few days or until incubation begins. During this time the birds are very beautiful.

The African white builds a simple nest on the ground out of sticks or reeds and mud or utilizes depressions in the ground. Same sites are used continuously. The average number of eggs is two which are large, elongated and chalky white. Both sexes incubate the eggs for 35 - 37 days and share in the hatchlings care.

Pelicans breed in colonies and the African white colonies are particularly large, numbering well in excess of 10,000 birds and covering areas measured in km. The hatchlings are pink and naked. Blackish brown down appears in three days. They are first fed milky regorge which the adult dribbles from the end of its long bill into the chick’s mouth. Older hatchlings explore the pouch and bury their heads and necks in the adult’s gullet looking for partly digested fish. When they can walk, young birds gather into “pods” or groups on the nesting ground (20 - 30 days after hatching) and ravage cormorant nests, beseige and batter pelican adults returning with food. The unruly mob swarms the adult but somehow only its own young are allowed to feed. Young pelicans take 60 - 70 days to reach the fishing stage, just before the adult stops feeding them. They take several years to develop the colourful plumage of adults. As juveniles, they are greyish brown with off white underneath, and have dull bare spots. They are sexually mature in three to four years.


: Like all pelicans, African whites are very social. They not only live and breed in gigantic colonies, but fly and often fish in groups. On the ground they are awkward, ponderous and malproportioned. They leave the surface with great difficulty with much awkward running and wing flapping. But once airborne they ride thermals to heights of staggered lines or in “V” formation. They flap their wings in regular succession. When the leader flaps they all flap; when the leader glides they do so also. Pelicans always fly with their pouches empty, the food stored in their gullets; necks are bent and the bills rest on their breasts. They can fly 483 km a day and are known to travel over 160 km just to feed and return.

African white pelicans often fish in groups using the ‘scare-line’ technique: eight to ten individuals floating in a horseshoe formation flap their wings in unison driving fish towards the shore. At intervals as if on cue, bills open and heads submerge annihilating an entire school of fish.

On land pelicans waddle; on water they are supremely buoyant because of their hollow bones and subcutaneous air sacs allowing these heavy birds buoyancy on water and in the air. But this buoyancy prevents the African whites from diving deeply for food. Rather they plunge their head and necks below the surface with bill open and use their extended pouches as scoop nets thereby satisfying their need for large quantities of fish (5 - 10% of body weight daily). Pelicans’ pouches are also used to reduce body heat by exposing additional skin to evaporation. As well, they are used to catch rainwater and sense fish movements in murky water. Pelicans love to bathe, shake their wet feathers, spread their wings to dry, preen, and just hang out in groups. Apparently they find this cooling and comforting.

Threats to Survival

: African white pelicans are not threatened, but pelicans in other regions are, particularly S.E. Europe and India. Habitat destruction, pollution, flooding, disease, and breeding site disturbance are causes. Once disturbed, an entire colony will leave as a whole, and not return.


: IUCN: Least Concern; CITES: Not Listed

Zoo Diet

: Smelt.