American white pelican/Rough-billed Pelican

(Pelecanus erythrohynchos)

American White Pelican/Rough-billed Pelican

As one of the largest birds in North America, the pelican is easy to spot and to identify. Its distinct, long orange bill, long neck and bright white feathers are hard to miss. These pelicans feed and spend time in shallow lakes, ponds, rivers, bays and estuaries.


North America to Central America.

Physical Characteristics

  • Length: 50 to 65"
  • Long, flat beak, yellow/orange in color
  • Bill length approx. 13 - 14.5" in males and 10 - 13" in females
  • Large throat sac
  • Wingspan 95 - 120"
  • Weight approximately 11 to 20 lbs
  • All white plumage, black on the tips of the wings (primary and secondary remiges)
  • Small eyes
  • Short legs with webbed feet, legs and feet are orange
  • Short tail features that are white in color
  • Fleshy skin around eyes and feet, light yellow color
  • Horizontal horn about 1/3 length of bill, attached grows on upper bill (horn is shed after mating)




The main diet of the pelican consists of a variety of fish. They consume about 4 lbs of fish per day. Hunting as they swim, they dunk their heads under the water to catch their prey. The American white pelican does not dive for their catch like the brown pelican. White pelicans will eat amphibians and crayfish as well, if they are available. Sometimes pelicans will hunt in groups, chasing fish towards the shore or each other. In deeper waters they are more likely to hunt alone, as the fish can escape much more easily. On occasion they will steal a meal from another pelican or other birds.

The pelican can hold up to 3 gallons of water in its expandable throat sac. If a fish is caught in the pouch with the water, the pelican will tilt the bill downward to drain the water out so they can swallow just the fish.


The pelican makes a croak, croak, croak call. Sometimes it sounds like a cross between a frog and a duck.


Loss of habitat or human incursion into nest sites is a major cause of death for young pelicans. Whole colonies of white pelicans have been known to abandon nests if they are disturbed. Floods, drought and contamination also may reduce pelican populations. Coyotes, ravens and gulls consume young hatchlings or eggs, decreasing the number of pelicans that survive into adulthood.

Behavior and Lifecycle

White pelicans live in colonies that consist of hundreds of pairs. They migrate to nesting areas in the spring months and nest from April through early June and often use the same location to nest for years. Preferred nesting sites are islands that prevent access from many mammals. Mating and courtship occur while the nest is being built, a process taking about 7 to 10 days. The female will lay a clutch of eggs ranging in size from 2 to 6 eggs. An average clutch contains 2 eggs. The nest is built on the ground with sticks and debris found in the local area.

Incubation takes about one month. Both the female and the male incubate the eggs and care for the young, one leaving to feed, while the other protects the nest. Not all of the hatchlings will survive. The young stay in the nest for another month, continuing to change and grow as they develop their full plumage. The juvenile pelicans will begin to move away from the nest, gathering together in groups called pods. These pods offer the young birds some protection from predators by virtue of their numbers, and free their parents to forage for food. Once the young pelicans begin to fly, about two months after they hatch, the parents continue to feed and help care for them until they prepare to migrate south for the winter. The family unit separates when they join a larger colony to prepare for the migration. Pelicans come of breeding age at about 3 years.

Interesting Facts:

  • The scientific name means “red-billed pelican.”
  • The white pelican does not dive for its prey, it dunks its head underwater to hunt.
  • White and brown pelicans can both hold up to 3 gallons of water in their throat sac.
  • Pelicans fly with their necks tucked back, unlike geese and swans.
  • The young gather in groups called pods, consisting of variously aged juveniles, not yet able to fly.
  • The white pelican soars, taking advantage of thermals.


Click here to read about the brown pelican.






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