American White Pelican- Pelecanus Erythrorhynchos: Interesting Facts And Everything About It:

The American white pelican is one of the most gracious water birds that breed in the land of North America.

Despite the large size of the bird, it manages to be great at both flying and swimming.

To help you know about American white pelicans below is a compilation of detailed information about the same.

What is an American White Pelican? How to identify?

One of the largest aquatic-soaring birds, the American white pelican is a member of the family of Pelecanidae.

The bird is native to North America but migrates to South America in winters. These birds are mostly found in flocks with members ranging from tens to hundreds.

The birds are identified by their large head, heavy bill, and wide black and white wings. The most unique identifying feature of the bird is the large throat sac attached to its bill.

History, Scientific name, and Origin of American White Pelican:


In 1789, the bird was first specified taxonomically by the scientist Johann Friedrich Gmelin.

Scientific Name

The scientific name of the American white pelican is Pelecanus erythrorhynchos which means red-billed pelican. The name was derived from the Latin and ancient Greek words.


American white pelicans are believed to have originated and inhabited North America. However, at present, they are found in almost all continents except Antarctica.

American white pelican behavior, Characteristics & Appearance:


  • American white pelicans are large birds that are quite equal in length to Trumpeter swans. The bird is large and plump with an overall length varying from 50 to 70 inches.
  • Their beak is around 11 to 15 inches approximately. Whereas, the length of the wingspan ranges from 95 to 120 inches.
  • As their name suggests, their plumage is completely white, except for the primary and outer secondary feathers which are black and only visible when they spread their wingspan during flight. The color of their feet, gular pouch, and bill is vivid orange.
  • American white pelicans have a bump on the bill. This is the only species of pelican which develop a flattened bill ‘horn’ during the breeding season. It sheds naturally after the end of their breeding.
  • American white pelicans become duller after they pass the breeding season. The young have dull grey plumage with the brown nape and inner feathers.
  • The newborn pelicans have bare skin without any plumage. They grow white feathers all over their body before molting.


  • American white pelicans fly extremely well, spreading their large wingspans and sliding down onto their feet on the water as they land. They either fly in linear formations or in the shape of a “V”.
  • The bird soars perfectly especially when they can benefit from updrafts. Unlike other species of pelicans, American white pelicans do not dive. However, the bird is a great swimmer and has air sacs present in their breast area that provide them buoyancy.
  • American white pelicans are highly social. Whatever these birds do, they do in groups. Their nesting colonies are extremely large and populated with a number of nests up to 1000 or more.
  • In large breeding colonies, the bird defends its small territory, often jabbing at its neighbors which may also include waterbirds from other species. The nests can be as close as the distance of 1 meter.
  • The bird forages by swimming on the surface water, dipping their bill into it, and scooping fish in their pouch. During the breeding season, it forages more at night, finding fish by touch. The bird may also be seen foraging cooperatively.
  • Below is detailed information about some of the other important aspects related to the behavior and appearance of American white pelicans.

1. American White Pelican – Wingspan, Flying, and Range:

American white pelicans have a large wingspan of length varying from 95 to 120 inches. Their wingspan is so large that the bird is given the second position in having the largest average wingspan in North American birds.

The large wingspan helps the bird to soar great distances during migration.

The speed at which American white pelicans fly varies significantly. However, the bird can fly as fast as 30 mph but mostly glides to stay in the air while foraging. Also, it can fly to remarkable heights.

2. What color are American white pelican eyes?

The color of the eyes of the American white pelican is vivid orange. Even, the bare skin around the eye shares a similar color.

3. American white pelican size | How big is the American white pelican?

The American white pelican is a large bird with a size measuring from 130 to 180 cm.

4. How much does a white pelican weigh?

The standard body weight of a white pelican ranges between 3.5 and 13.6 kg.

5. What does an American White Pelican sound like?

American white pelican produces sounds of low grunts and squawks. The adults are usually silent and only use grunts during sexual interaction or in aggression. The young are louder and use squawks to beg for food or grab attention.

6. What does a white pelican symbolize?

A white pelican is believed to symbolize peace, calmness, sacrifice, humility, and unity. The bird is also considered to be a symbol of renewal and healing.

American white pelican – Egg laying and breeding:

In the breeding season, the bird forms a monogamous pair and defends its nesting territory in large breeding colonies. The pairs are formed by the courtship rituals which include head swaying, bowing, and circular courtship flight.

After mating and formation of the pair, the pair establish a nest scrape and start defending it. The bird lays two eggs in the period of 2 days. If an egg is destroyed or lost, it does not get replaced.

The pair incubates the eggs continuously under their foot webs for almost a month. The eggs are then brooded for a further 17 days.

Until 10 to 11 weeks after hatching, the parent birds feed their young by regurgitating. Once an American white pelican reaches the age of 3 years, it starts breeding.

The nests of American white pelicans are scrapes with rims on the leveled ground that are easily accessible to them. The sites barely have vegetation, but some small shrubs or grasses may be seen.

American white pelican habitat | Where do they live or can be found?

American white pelicans live in areas surrounding water bodies. In winters, these birds are found in coastal bays and estuaries.

The large rivers and other in-land wintering areas such as the Salton Sea in California serve as their habitat during the cold season.

The bird breeds on islands around shallow rivers, lakes, and marshes. The breeding islands are at least 50 km away from the areas it forages.

Geographically, American white pelicans inhabit all around North America. They breed in the prairie, in-land regions of the US and Canada, whereas, spend their winters in southern, coastal areas.

American White Pelican Migration | Do American white pelicans migrate?

American white pelicans are birds that migrate annually, except for some of the population of birds residing in Mexico and near the Gulf of Mexico.

The young ones migrate in their first to the winter range and only start annual migrations when they reach 2 years of age.

The bird reaches the breeding grounds at the time of spring for a short period. The migration during fall is way more dispersed. These birds migrate during the day in large flocks.

The lifespan of American white pelican | How long can they live?

In the wild, American white pelicans can live for more than 16 years. In captivity, the lifespan of birds is recorded to be as high as 34 years. 

However, not every American white pelican successfully lives up to the specified years. The parent bird could typically raise just a single egg out of the two. Approximately, only 10% of the clutches in a colony are able to raise 2 young.

The average mortality rate of the offspring during their first year is around 40%. Through the second year, the average mortality rate becomes 16% and then gradually decreases.

There are many factors responsible for such high mortality in American white pelicans. Some of them are nest abandonment, attacks by other pelicans, predation, and starvation.

American white pelican diet | What do American white pelicans eat?

American white pelicans feed on aquatic creatures, including mostly fishes, amphibians, larval salamanders, and crustaceans. Some of the fishes eaten by them are tui chub, carp, minnows, and even salmon. Their diet includes a minimum of 4 pounds of food every day.

The bird usually forages in shallow waters where it can spot the fish on the surface. But it does not mind foraging in deeper waters as well. These birds may forage in groups or alone.

Like other pelicans, American white pelicans also use their bills and gular pouch to scoop out their prey while swimming at the surface. The birds do not dive in like brown pelicans. 

Cooperative forging includes collaborative efforts to drive their prey to the shallow waters. The bird is also great at taking the food of other pelicans or waterbirds.

What are the predators of American White Pelicans?

Below is a list of some of the known predators in the wild for American white pelicans.

  • Coyotes
  • Red foxes
  • California gulls
  • Herring gulls
  • Common ravens
  • Ring-billed gulls
  • Great horned owls
  • Bald eagles

As the nesting colonies of the bird are usually on isolated islands, the bird is not threatened by terrestrial predators. However, the young and eggs have a threat from foxes and coyotes if the nesting colonies are accessible.

The adults have less risk of predation as compared to the young and eggs. But coyotes are a threat to adults as well.

Is the American white pelican endangered?

The American white pelican is not an endangered bird. Rather, due to the large population size and wide range, the bird is considered the least concern by the IUCN.

In recent years, the population of American white pelicans has increased because of conservation efforts. The major reason for the decline of their population was the destruction of their natural habitats.

The destruction of wetlands remains the topmost factor affecting the population of the bird. Some of the other factors are human intervention at their nesting sites, usage of pesticides, etc.

Some interesting American white pelican fun facts:

  • An American white pelican is believed to provide around 150 pounds of food to nourish offspring from its birth to the time it starts foraging itself.
  • American white pelicans’ embryos are known to squawk even before hatching to show discomfort if they feel too hot or cold.
  • These birds are often found together with double-crested cormorants. Both the birds are seen foraging with each other. They may also nest in the same colonies.
  • Apart from the size difference, both the male and female American white pelican look exactly the same. This is why the birds fall into the list of monomorphic birds.
  • American white pelicans do not have any described subspecies.


American white pelicans are spectacular water birds that are known for their large wingspans, flying ability, and method of foraging.

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