What Do Pelicans Eat? | Food Habits Of Pelicans With A List Of Best Foods:

Pelicans are the water birds that are quite popular for their unique mouth pouch, attached with their beaks, that helps them in fishing.

The birds are known for swooping their prey into their pouch and swallowing them. Also, pelicans are large birds with a big appetite. 

Most people have seen pelicans eating just fish, but this is not all that they eat. To help you understand pelican’s diet and their food habits below is detailed information about the same.

What do pelicans eat?

Pelicans eat fishes the most, but sometimes will also eat insects, birds, amphibians, turtles, crustaceans, and small mammals. The birds are carnivorous and hence, their complete diet is entirely dependent on meat sources. 

The maximum percentage of their food is fish and everything that they get suitable for eating from or near the ocean.

The size of the fish eaten by the birds entirely depends on the species. It can vary from a fish of a few inches to those a few feet long. 

Food habits of pelicans

Different species of pelicans have different food habits. To understand the feeding habits of the birds below is a detailed description of each species.

1. The Brown Pelican:

  • Fish remains the major part of their diet, but amphibians and crustaceans are eaten by the birds predominantly.
  • This species of pelicans highly consume Menhaden. Other than that, they also feed on pigfish, pinfish, herring, silversides, mullet, sheepshead, and minnows. 
  • During the nesting period, the bids depend a lot on anchovy than any other food source.
  • The food consumed by an adult brown pelican each day is around 4.0 lb (1.8 kg).
  • These birds have keen eyesight which helps them to spot their food even from a height of 60-70 feet.  This is a unique way of feeding, found only in brown pelicans. 

2. American White Pelican:

  • The diet of American white pelicans generally includes fish such as Sacramento perch, Lahontan tui chub, common crap, rainbow trout, yellow perch, and jackfish.
  • They balance their diet of only fish with other food such as amphibians, crayfish, and larval salamanders. 
  • Their way of feeding or hunting includes catching their prey through swimming rather than diving. 
  • The birds prefer hunting in groups in which they encircle their prey and feed together. But if the hunting involves deep water, they like to go solo. 
  • The food consumed by American white pelicans each day is around 4 pounds.

3. Australian Pelican:

  • The diet of Australian Pelicans majorly includes fish species such as goldfish, European perch, and European crap. As Leiopotherapon unicolor is a native species in Australia, these pelicans will probably eat them too. 
  • These birds also feed on aquatic crustaceans, shrimps, and even common yabbies.
  • Australian pelicans are also known for preying on grey teal, silver gulls, and their nestlings, eggs, and adults.
  • Their way of hunting involves mere swimming on the water surface. The birds dive down in the water to catch their prey. They then drive their prey to the shore in the shallow water and then they feed on them in groups. 
  • Their groups can be really large and can consist of approximately 2000 birds in them. However, they may also prey alone. 
  • These birds are opportunistic and eclectic scavengers and carnivores that prey in landfill sites as well. 

4. Great White Pelican:

  • These birds also rely massively on fish for their food. The birds eat at least 2-3 lb fish every day.
  • Great white pelicans prey in extremely large groups. The hotspot lakes of these birds, such as Lake Rukwa, may receive these birds in a group of around 75,000 members. Every year, the largest concentration of great white pelicans is likely to feed on 62 million pounds of fish.
  • A unique feature of feeding in these birds is that they may fly up to 100 km looking for their food.
  • These birds have the ability to feed on large fishes that may weigh up to 1.1-1.3 lb.
  • Other than fishes, the birds may occasionally feed on common crap, mullet, etc. They also consume tadpoles, crustaceans, and turtles to supplement their diet.
  • Great white pelicans are also opportunistic feeders. Hence, they may also prey on birds’ eggs, seagulls, or ducklings, during times of starvation. 

Related Read: Do Birds Get Tired Of Flying | How Long Can Birds Fly Without Stopping?

5. Dalmatian Pelican:

  • These birds consume fish such as European perch, mullet, Northern pike, silurids, catfish, and eels.
  • These birds are solitary feeders. If they pray in groups, the group is small enough with only 2-3 birds in it. 
  • The amount of fish eaten by a dalmatian pelican each day is around 2.5 lb.
  • The birds will also feed on crustaceans, beetles, water birds, nestlings, worms, and eggs to supplement their consumption. 

Related Read: How Do Birds Find Bird Feeders? | Will Birds Come To A Bird Feeder?

6. Pink-backed Pelicans:

  • These birds consume around 400 to 500 grams of fish each day.
  • They are also solitary feeders.
  • Apart from the fishes, the birds are also likely to eat cichlids and amphibians. 

Best food for pelicans:

Below is the complete list of foods that are best for pelicans.

  • Sardines
  • Anchovies
  • Pigfish
  • Herring 
  • Mullet
  • Minnows
  • Menhaden
  • Sheepshead
  • Crabs
  • Lizards
  • Frogs
  • Turtles
  • Birds
  • Eggs

Related Read: Can You Feed Birds Bread? | Will Birds Eat Bread?

Related Read: What Time Of Day Do Birds Eat?

Related Read: Feeding Racing Pigeons | Complete Food and Nutrition Guide with some Pro – Feeding Secrets

How do pelicans swallow?

When pelicans capture their prey inside their pouch, they first drain the water by lifting their head and parting their mandibles slightly.

Once all the excess water drains out, they toss their heads back and swallow the entire fish with their head first.

Their prey becomes immobile, past its fighting point, before it gets swallowed by pelicans. Their constrictors also immobilize the prey by asphyxiating it rapidly.

Once the prey is swallowed, it gets digested in their stomachs.

Can you feed pelicans bread?

Pelicans shouldn’t be fed with bread or any other food sources that are not involved in their natural diet. 

If the birds consume such feedings, they will not be able to digest the food and utilize it as it will lack the nutrients required by the birds.

Thus, bread and other things included in human diets should be kept away from pelicans.

Why shouldn’t you feed pelicans?

Pelicans learn fishing at a young age and practice it all their life to survive. When the birds are fed by humans, they become dependent on humans for their food and resort to begging.

Feeding pelicans will encourage the birds to stop fishing completely. 

Humans do not generally know about the right diet for pelicans and thus, feed them with random scraps.

This diet makes the birds sick because their body is not made for digesting all such food items. Lack of nutrients will lead them to even death.

Could a pelican swallow a cat or a little dog?

A pelican can swallow a cat, a puppy, or any other small-sized mammal. Anything that would fit into its pouch, get down through the throat, and digests in its belly will be considered as their food by them. 

During times of starvation, they would not leave any opportunity to fulfill their hunger, even if they have to eat a small mammal. 


Fish is the staple diet of all species of pelicans. However, the size and kind of the preferred fish eaten by the different species of pelicans depends on the location of the birds.

These birds when visiting seashores or beaches should not be fed with food scraps as they are harmful to the birds if fed repeatedly.

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