American White Pelican

The American white pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) is a large aquatic soaring bird from the order Pelecaniformes.

Amercian White Pelican
The American White Pelican breeds in interior North America, moving south and to the coasts, as far as Central America and South America, in winter

Information & Facts:


The American White Pelican is similar in length to a trumpeter swan. It has an overall length of about 50–70 in (130–180 cm), with a huge beak that measures 11.3–15.2 in (290–390 mm) in males and 10.3–14.2 in (260–360 mm) in females. It has a wingspan of about 95–120 in (240–300 cm). The species also has the second largest average wingspan of any North American bird, after the California condor. This large wingspan allows the bird to easily use soaring flight for migration.

The body weight of the American White Pelican can range between 7.7 and 30 lb (3.5 and 13.6 kg), although usually they average between 11 and 20 lb (5.0 and 9.1 kg). The plumage is almost entirely bright white, except the black primary and secondary remiges, which are hardly visible except in flight. From early spring until after breeding has finished in mid-late summer, the breast feathers have a yellowish hue. After moulting into the eclipse plumage, the upper head often has a grey hue, as blackish feathers grow between the small wispy white crest.

The bill is huge and flat on the top, with a large throat sac below, and, in the breeding season, is vivid orange in color as are the iris, the bare skin around the eye, and the feet. In the breeding season, there is a laterally flattened “horn” on the upper bill, located about one-third the bill’s length behind the tip. This is the only one of the eight species of pelican to have a bill “horn”. The horn is shed after the birds have mated and laid their eggs. Outside the breeding season the bare parts become duller in color, with the naked facial skin yellow and the bill, pouch, and feet an orangy-flesh color.

Apart from the difference in size, males and females look exactly alike. Immature birds have light grey plumage with darker brownish nape and remiges. Their bare parts are dull grey. Chicks are naked at first, then grow white down feathers all over, before moulting to the immature plumage.


The American White Pelican does not dive for its food. Instead, it catches its prey while swimming. Each bird eats more than 4 pounds of food a day, mostly fish such like Common carp (Cyprinus carpio), Lahontan Tui chub (Gila bicolor obesa) and shiners, Perciformes like Sacramento perch (Archoplites interruptus) and Yellow perch (Perca flavescens), Salmoniformes like Rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss), Siluriformes (catfish), and jackfish.

Other animals eaten by the American White Pelican are crayfish and amphibians, and sometimes larval salamanders. Birds nesting on saline lakes, where food is scarce, will travel great distances to better feeding grounds.

American white pelicans like to come together in groups of a dozen or more birds to feed, so they can cooperate and corral fish to one another. When this is not easily possible – for example in deep water, where fish can escape by diving out of reach – they prefer to forage alone. Sometimes they will steal food from one another, a practice known as kleptoparasitism.


The American White Pelicans are ‘colonial breeders’, with up to 5,000 pairs per site. The birds arrive on the breeding grounds in March or April; nesting starts between early April and early June. During the breeding season, both males and females develop a pronounced bump on the top of their large beaks. This conspicuous growth is shed by the end of the breeding season.

The nest is a shallow depression scraped in the ground, in some twigs, sticks, reeds or similar debris have been gathered. After about one week of courtship and nest-building, the female lays a clutch of usually 2 or 3 eggs, sometimes just 1, sometimes up to 6.

Both parents incubate for about to one month. The young leave the nest 3–4 weeks after hatching; at this point, usually only one young per nest has survived. They spend the following month in a creche or “pod”, moulting into immature plumage and eventually learning to fly. After fledging, the parents care for their offspring some three more weeks, until the close family bond separates in late summer or early fall, and the birds gather in larger groups on rich feeding grounds in preparation for the migration to the winter quarters. They migrate south by September or October

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American White Pelican
American White Pelican
Conservation Status
Conservation Status

Least Concern (IUCN 3.1)

Scientific Classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Pelecaniformes
Family: Pelecanidae
Genus: Pelecanus
P. erythrorhynchos
Binomial Name

Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

American White Pelican Range

American White Pelican Range