Where Do Pelicans Live? – Discover their homes across the globe


two australian pelicans perched on a dead tree in a lake at sunset. the text where do pelicans live is written beside them in orange and green

Pelicans are perhaps one of the planet’s most recognizable and well-known bird species. Their huge bills and dangling gular pouches are unmistakable. In this article, thanks to information gathered from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and other sources, you will discover where pelicans live all across the globe.

Pelicans live on six of the seven continents, on or near water. They prefer shallow waters such as fresh or saltwater lakes, rivers, marshes, wetlands, inland seas, deltas, brackish lagoons, estuaries, alkaline mudflats, reservoirs, seasonal ponds, and coastal marine environments. Some are migratory.

The rest of this article will explore where pelicans live in more detail. You will learn about each of the 8 species of pelicans and the habitats they prefer. Let’s dive in…

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Where Do Australian Pelicans Live?

Australian Pelicans can be found in most inland and coastal areas of Australia. They also frequent New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and New Zealand. They have also been seen in Indonesia.

They have been recorded as far north as South Cotabato in the Philippines and as far south as Timaru in New Zealand.

a map of Australia, new guinea, and new zealand showing the distribution of Australian pelicans.
Australian Pelican Distribution – map courtesy of birdsoftheworld.org.

Australian pelicans prefer large stretches of open water without too much vegetation. They typically inhabit large lakes, reservoirs, billabongs, and rivers. Other habitats they will occupy are swamps, estuaries, drainage channels in farmlands, saltpans, coastal lagoons, fishing ports, and temporarily flooded areas in dry zones.

Learn about more Australian birds in this Birdwatch World article.

an Austalian Pelican standing in shallow water with its left side to the camera
An Australian Pelican – image by Barry Callister Photography.

These large feathered Australians are nomadic. They will often move great distances for food or based on seasonal factors such as drought. Like most pelicans, Australian pelicans are large birds (around 152–188 cm with a wingspan of 230–260 cm) and rely on thermal updrafts to carry them upwards into the air. Because of this, they can often be blown off course by winds.

two Australian pelicans perched on a dead tree in a lake at sunset
Australian Pelicans – image by Andrew Haysom from Getty Images.

When it comes to nesting, Australian pelicans require remote, undisturbed sites with a good food supply. They nest on small sandy islands or the shoreline of coastal areas, lakes, and swamps.

When roosting or lazing about, Australian pelicans prefer shorelines, beaches, mudflats, sandbars, reefs, jetties, and even light poles.

australian pelican perched on a street light in front of blue sky
An Australian Pelican resting on a street light – image by Barry Callister Photography.

A lot of the information in this article has been sourced from The Handbook Of The Birds Of The World Vol. 1 by Andrew Elliot (Author), Josep del Hoyo (Editor), Jordi Sargatal (Editor), and Christoph Imboden (Foreword).

The Handbook Of The Birds Of The World is a 16-volume series that covers every known living bird species. It is where the Cornell Lab of Ornithology draws their information for their birdsoftheworld.org website and is a trusted reference for bird information worldwide.


Where Do Pelicans Live In America?

America is home to two species of pelicans: the American White and the Brown.

an American White Pelican and a Brown Pelican in separate frames that look like polaroid photographs

The American white is found from the Yukon and Northwest Territories in Canada, all the way south to Panama in Central America. The brown pelican inhabits western coastal areas from Ketchikan in Alaska, all the way south to Coquimbo, Chile; and from the St. Lawrence River, Quebec, south to Cayenne in French Guiana in the east.

American White Pelican

These pelicans except for resident colonies in Texas and Mexico are a migratory species. This means that they make use of various habitats in their breeding, non-breeding, and wintering ranges.

a map of north and central America showing the distribution of American White Pelicans
American White Pelican Distribution – image courtesy of birdsoftheworld.org.

During breeding season and migration, American white pelicans frequent freshwater lakes, inland marshes, and rivers. Like most pelicans, they prefer shallow water. When nesting, they commonly choose islands that are over 50 km (31 mi) from where they forage.

One common place that American white pelicans choose for breeding and nesting is Gunnison Island in the Great Salt Lake, Utah. Around 10-20% of the population uses this island as a breeding ground.

They rarely spend winters in inland habitats, instead favoring shallow coastal bays, inlets, and estuaries. If they do venture inland for winter, they will choose areas below dams or on large rivers where the flow of water prevents the surface from freezing.

9 American White Pelicans grooming while standing on a pipe that is protruding from still water
A group of American White Pelicans preening together – image by Cliff Briggin from Getty Images.

Brown Pelican

Brown pelicans are primarily a coastal species, making them one of only two truly marine pelicans.

a map of north and South America showing the distribution of Brown Pelicans
Brown Pelican distribution – image courtesy of birdsoftheworld.org.

They prefer warm marine and estuarine environments and are rarely found inland. Some will visit inland waters in southwestern U.S. and central Florida after breeding.

When breeding, brown pelicans will choose small islands that are within 30-50 km of a food supply. In Florida, they breed predominantly on mangrove islets; in the Gulf of California, they breed on dry, rocky offshore islands.

Brown pelicans are plunge divers. They will climb to around 10-20 m (32.8-65.6 ft) above the water’s surface before diving into the water to catch fish. Due to the layer of air sacks beneath their skin, they cannot stay submerged. They are also unable to remain on water for longer than an hour without becoming waterlogged.

Discover more American birds in this article here on Birdwatch World.

a brown pelican diving into the water
A Brown Pelican plunge-diving for food – image by CarolinaBirdman from Getty Images.

When they’re resting, brown pelicans will favor sandbars, pilings, jetties, offshore rocks and islands, breakwaters, and mangrove islets.

Where Do South American Pelicans Live?

The Peruvian pelican joins the Brown as the other truly marine species. These birds are found on the western coast of South America, from Same in northern Ecuador to Puerto Natales in southern Chile. They are the only predominantly South American pelican species.

a map of South America showing the distribution of the Peruvian Pelican
Peruvian Pelican Distribution – map courtesy of birdsoftheworld.org.

Peruvian pelicans prefer shallow inshore waters, including estuaries and bays. Though often seen around fishing ports, they avoid the open sea.

For breeding, these pelicans like small, flat, bare islands or arid coastline. They will choose remote locations so they are not disturbed by predators or humans.

a Peruvian Pelican in flight over blue water.
A Peruvian Pelican in flight – image by Neil Bowman from Getty Images.

The South American birds in this Birdwatch World article will blow your mind!

Where Do Pelicans Live In Africa?

Two species of pelican can be found on the African continent: the Great White and the Pink-backed. They are both predominantly inland species.

Great White Pelican

Alkaline and freshwater lakes, and sometimes marine environments are where great white pelicans make their homes in Africa. They are found south of the Saraha Desert down to Capetown.

They can also be found in Eurasia where they frequent fresh or brackish lakes, lagoons, and marshes. They have been recorded as far north as Alnwick in the United Kingdom, and as far south as Aden in Yemen.

a map of Africa and Eurasia showing the distribution of the Great White Pelican
Great White Pelican distribution – map courtesy of birdsoftheworld.org.

Great white pelicans breed in southeast Europe, north and southeast Kazakhstan, Africa, and northwest India. Their northern populations are migratory. It is not known exactly where the European population’s wintering grounds are but it is thought to be in Africa. Asian birds spend their winters in Pakistan.

A flock of Great White Pelicans standing on dirt and grass by the waters edge
Great White Pelicans – image by LuCaAr from Getty Images.

Pink-backed Pelican

Pink-backed pelicans are found in subtropical and tropical Africa; from Mauritania east to Port Sudan, Sudan; and Port Said, Egypt, south to Cape Town, South Africa. They also occur in southwest Arabia.

a map of Africa showing the distribution of the Pink-backed pelican
Pink-backed Pelican distribution – map courtesy of birdsoftheworld.org.

They are not fussy about the habitats they live in; freshwater lakes, swamps, rivers, seasonal ponds, bays, and alkaline lakes are all preferred. Interestingly, these birds can also be found in the dry country when locusts are plentiful.

They breed in trees that are near water, on sandy islands, mangroves, and even near civilization. They roost on cliffs, coral reefs, dunes, piers, and walls close to an abundant food source.

two pink-backed pelicans swimming with their beaks in the water
A pair of Pink-backed pelicans – image by Denja1 from Getty Images.

In recent years pink-backed pelicans have been sighted in Europe, as far north as Dolnaslaskie Province, Poland.

Where Do Pelicans Live In Eurasia?

The last two of the world’s pelican species inhabit countries within Eurasia. They are the Spot-billed Pelican and the flamboyant Dalmatian Pelican.

Spot-billed Pelican

These birds live in southern Asia, with recorded sightings from India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Bhutan, Nepal, Myanmar, Malaysia, and China.

a map of Asia showing the distribution of the Spot-billed Pelican
Spot-billed Pelican distribution – map courtesy of birdsoftheworld.org.

Spot-billed pelicans like marshes, rivers, estuaries, reservoirs, tanks, flooded fields, large lakes, brackish lagoons, tidal creeks, coastal waters, and jheels.

These pelicans nest in large trees, normally in swamp forests or swampy savannas, sometimes alongside paddy fields. They also like to roost in trees and seem to have a preference for bare or dead ones.

a Spot-billed Pelican standing on a log in a river. The bird has its wings slightly spread and its beak open
A Spot-billed Pelican – image by wrangel from Getty Images.

Dalmatian Pelican

These stylish-looking pelicans are the largest of all the pelicans and can be found across southeast Europe and eastern Asia. Their largest populations are in Greece and northwestern India. They also frequent Romania, Ukraine, Turkey, Moldova, Istanbul, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Mongolia, eastern China, and Taiwan.

a map of Eurasia showing the distribution of the Dalmatian Pelican
Dalmatian Pelican distribution – map courtesy of birdsoftheworld.org.

Dalmatian pelicans have also been reported as far west as A Coruña in Spain and Norway and Russia in the north.

These birds prefer rivers, lakes, deltas, and estuaries. They nest on islands or amongst dense vegetation. When wintering in India, they prefer jheels and lagoons. Ice-free lakes are their habitat of choice when wintering in Europe.

a Dalmatian Pelican swimming. The bird is facing towards the camera and the water is still
A Dalmatian Pelican – image by musicinside from Getty Images.

Conclusion

That covers all 8 species of pelicans, where they are found, and the habitats they live in.

Three of the eight species of pelican in this post are listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List Of Threatened Species. The sobering statistic is that 48% of bird populations are decreasing. Many other birds, animals, and plants on our planet are also threatened with extinction.

You can help threatened species by donating to organizations such as the IUCN. Click here to support the IUCN’s tireless work gathering the information we need to save these species.

To learn more about pelicans, read the Birdwatch World articles below:

References


barrycallisterphotography

Barry is a bird photographer and bird watcher with over 7 years of experience. He runs his own YouTube channel about photography and promotes his nature photography on his personal website barrycallisterphotography.com.au.

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