and inland lakes
except the Antarctica
With their immense gular (throat) pouches and equally large bills, pelicans are among some of the most easily identifiable birds. The gular pouch works like a fishing net to scoop the pelican’s prey and the upper mandible of the pelican’s beak acts as a cap over the throat pouch to trap the prey within. Most pelicans hunt in groups in horseshoe-shaped formations to drive fish to shallow waters where they can then be scooped up with ease. The brown pelican is the only pelican to dive from the air to fish. As it plunges into the water, the pouch opens like a parachute to slow down the bird, reducing the impact of the plunge.
The pouch can hold up to 13 litres of water - the water in a pelican’s pouch can be heavier than the bird itself. After a successful hunt, the pelican will only swallow its prey after the water has drained out of its pouch. The pouch is so spacious it can hold more fish than the pelican’s stomach.
The pelican would seldom fly with fish in its pouch as the weight of a struggling fish in its pouch would throw it off-balance.
Like an elephant’s ears, the pelican’s pouch has a network of blood vessels running through. To reduce their body heat on hot days, pelicans can be observed swirling the sides of their pouches, much as elephants cool down by ‘fanning’ their ears.
During the breeding season, the pouch and beak take on brilliant hues. The colour change can be so dramatic that the birds may be mistaken to be different species.
Beak colour also plays an important part in chick-raising. A bright orange bump on the adult pelican’s beak attracts the chicks’ attention and they peck at it. This causes the parent to regurgitate a nutritious liquid, which flows along the colourful bump, stimulating the chicks to start taking food.
To feed their young, adult pelicans swallow their food before opening their beaks wide. At this cue, the chick violently plunges its head deep into the adult’s gular pouch to retrieve partially-digested, bloody fish from the gullet. This behaviour probably gave rise to Christian and Indian fables of self-sacrificial pelicans feeding their young with their hearts.
Each chick needs an intake of approximately 70-80kg of fish before they reach the fledging stage.
Learn more about our wildlife from the people who know best – the keepers. In this interactive session, hear interesting quirks of the animals from our keepers.