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4

Australian Pelican

(Pelecanus conspicillatus)
Alternate name(s): "Spectacled Pelican"
Aboriginal name(s): "gulaanbali" [yuwaalaraay], "guliyali"/"guliyaali"/"gulayaali" [gamilarray, yuwaalaraay, yuwaaliyaay]; "jungahr"/"jungar"/"jungur*", "ngadjang-nguhr" [bundjalung]; "patjangal"/"paRangal" [yartwatjali, tjapwurrung, djadjawurrung]; "nerimba", "boodelong" "ngooloomberri" (WA); "bilbungra", "boolungal", "millemurro", "nangkero", "parangool", "tarraloo", "thaumpara", "warandoo", "bulwarra", "kunumbirra"

Size: 1.6-1.8 m; wing span 2.3-2.5 m
Weight: 4-13 kg (typically 4.5-7.7 kg)
Description     Classification     Distribution     Sightings     Photos     Breeding     Nest     Eggs     Behaviour     Food     Call/s

Physical description

Click here for a physical description

Taxonomy, classification

See Australian Pelican at Wikipedia .

Range, habitat, finding this species

Click here for information on habitat and range

Sightings

Click here for sighting information

Photos

ADULT

Sex unknown

BREEDING

Close-up frontal view of two Australian Pelicans in breeding plumage (photo courtesy of A. Ross-Taylor)
[Gold Coast, QLD, May 2014]

Close-up near-lateral view of an Australian Pelican in breeding plumage (photo courtesy of A. Ross-Taylor)
[Gold Coast, QLD, May 2014]

Close-up lateral view of an Australian Pelican in breeding plumage (photo courtesy of J. Boettcher, FNQ Nature Tours)
[Lake Barrine, Atherton Tablelands, QLD, February 2019]

Close-up lateral view of an Australian Pelican in breeding plumage on the point of departure
(photo courtesy of J. Boettcher, FNQ Nature Tours)
[Lake Barrine, Atherton Tablelands, QLD, February 2019]

Australian Pelicans in breeding plumage resting on a sand bank - note the clearly visible buff wash on the breast of the bird on the left (photo courtesy of A. Ross-Taylor)
[Tweed River, Tweed Heads, NSW, December 2014]

Lateral view with a direct comparison between an Australian Pelican in breeding plumage, left, and another in eclipse, right (photo courtesy of C. Pears)
[Quindalup, WA, August 2013]

Frontal view of Australian Pelicans in breeding plumage in flight
[Goran Lake, NSW, May 2012]

Close-up frontal/ventral view of 2 Australian Pelicans in breeding plumage in flight
(photo courtesy of J. Boettcher, FNQ Nature Tours)
[Esplanade, Cairns, QLD, August 2020]

Close-up near-frontal/ventral view of an Australian Pelican in breeding plumage in flight
(photo courtesy of J. Boettcher, FNQ Nature Tours)
[Esplanade, Cairns, QLD, October 2020]

Lateral/ventral view of an Australian Pelican in breeding plumage in flight (photo courtesy of C. Pears)
[Quindalup, WA, July 2013]

NOT HERE, MATE!!! - Oops! (photo courtesy of J. Boettcher, FNQ Nature Tours)
[Esplanade, Cairns, QLD, October 2020]

NON-BREEDING

Frontal view of an Australian Pelican in non-breeding plumage balancing on a branch (photo courtesy of C. Pears)
[Lake Monger, Perth, WA, May 2021]

Close-up near-frontal view of an Australian Pelican in non-breeding plumage (photo courtesy of C. Pears)
[Bunbury, WA, April 2024]

Close-up near-lateral view of an Australian Pelican in non-breeding plumage
[Pilliga lagoon, near Pilliga, NSW, April 2021]

Lateral portrait of an Australian Pelican in non-breeding plumage
[Iluka NR, NSW, 2005]

Close-up lateral view of an Australian Pelican in non-breeding plumage
[Pilliga lagoon, near Pilliga, NSW, April 2021]

Lateral view of an Australian Pelican in non-breeding plumage, "full steam ahead" (photo courtesy of C. Pears)
[Lake Monger, Perth, WA, May 2021]

Lateral view of an Australian Pelican in non-breeding plumage at sea, near the coast (photo courtesy of P. Brown)
[Off Casuarina Coastal Reserve, Darwin, NT, July 2019]

Lateral view of a preening Australian Pelican in non-breeding plumage (photo courtesy of M. Eaton)
[Dundowran Beach, Hervey Bay, QLD, May 2018]

Lateral view of a resting Australian Pelican in non-breeding plumage
[Pilliga Wetlands Walk, near Pilliga, NSW, July 2021]

Two Australian Pelicans on a relatively small water surface on an inland creek
[O'Brien's Creek, Narrabri Lake, NSW, August 2012]

Lateral view of an Australian Pelican on a comfy seat
[Urunga board walk, Urunga Heads, NSW, August 2009]

In case you did not know yet what jetties are made for... mob of Australian Pelicans taking time out for preening
[Near Wyong, NSW, June 2011]

This Australian Pelican was so fast asleep that it did not notice the curious photographer at all
[Pilliga Wetlands Walk, NSW, May 2018]

Flock of about 110 Australian Pelicans at an ephemeral lake; one can also see 8 Black Swans just behind the pelicans; the hill range in the background is Coolah Tops NP
[Goran Lake, NSW, June 2011]

Australian Pelican nursery on a sandbank at an ephemeral lake
[Goran Lake, NSW, April 2013]

Would you like to compare the size of an Australian White Ibis with Australian Pelicans? Click on image to set your scale...
[Narrabri Lake, NSW, September 2008]

Near-dorsal view of an Australian Pelican preparing for take-off
[Pilliga Bore Bath, near Pilliga, NSW, November 2017]

Close-up lateral/ventral view of an Australian Pelican in flight
[Goran Lake, NSW, September 2011]

Lateral view of an Australian Pelican in flight
[Pilliga Bore Bath, near Pilliga, NSW, November 2017]

Pedestrians beware - oncoming traffic! Near-dorsal view of an Australian Pelican trying to gain height
[Narrabri Lake, NSW, August 2013]

Lateral view of an Australian Pelican in non-breeding plumage touching down (photo courtesy of C. Pears)
[Lake Monger, Perth, WA, May 2021]

Stained Australian Pelicans

At times one can find Australian Pelicans with rust-coloured stains on their plumage. In some cases the staining affects only the underparts (that are exposed to water when the bird floats on the surface), in others all parts that are normally white are stained rust-red. A possible cause for such staining could be iron-rich minerals.

Frontal to lateral views of a small mob of Australian Pelicans, only one of which is partly stained (photo courtesy of C. Pears)
[Bunbury, WA, April 2024]

Preening doesn't help... (photo courtesy of C. Pears)
[Bunbury, WA, April 2024]

... might as well go back to rest (photo courtesy of C. Pears)
[Bunbury, WA, April 2024]

Lateral to dorsal views of four Australian Pelicans, all of which have completely stained body plumage, with only the upperwing coverts looking normal
[Cattai Wetlands, near Coopernook, NSW, October 2023]

IMMATURE/JUVENILE

Close-up frontal view of a juvenile Australian Pelican; note the dusky, rather than black wing coverts (photo courtesy of D. Dyer)
[Cervantes, WA, November 2020]

Lateral view of a juvenile Australian Pelican; note the dusky, rather than black wing coverts (photo courtesy of D. Dyer)
[Cervantes, WA, November 2020]

Mix of adult and juvenile Australian Pelicans
[Goran Lake, NSW, April 2022]

Australian Pelicans resting in shallow water; the bird on the left is a juvenile (photo courtesy of C. Pears)
[Lake Monger, Perth, WA, May 2021]

Lateral/ventral view of Australian Pelicans in flight - adult on the right, juvenile on the left
[Goran Lake, NSW, March 2012]

Lateral view of two Australian Pelicans in flight; adult above, juvenile below
[Goran Lake, NSW, March 2012]

Rapidly descending ("whiffling") Australian Pelican; the absence of a dark carpal bar on the underwing and the dusky, rather than black, flight feathers indicate that this bird is a juvenile
[Goran Lake, NSW, April 2012]

Breeding information

Breeding season: Aug - Nov Eggs: 2 - 3 Incubation period: 32 - 37 days Fledging age: 84 - 100 days

 

Australian Pelicans breed in colonies. The breeding season depends significantly on geographical latitude and on conditions. The season listed in the table above refers to southern Australia. In response to good rainfall, in particular in the Red Centre, they can breed any time of the year. Before fledging, chicks leave the nest after only about 25 days and form creches.

Pair of Australian Pelicans working on the next generation (photo courtesy of C. Pears)
[Penguin Island, near Rockingham, WA, October 2022]

Nest

"bungobittah", "lar", "malunna", "jindi" [bundjalung] = nest [Aboriginal]

Type: Scrape Material: Some sticks/debris around sand bowl Height above ground: N/A

 

Overview of a small breeding colony of Australian Pelicans (photo courtesy of C. Pears)
[Penguin Island, near Rockingham, WA, October 2022]

Four Australian Pelican chicks that have left their nests (photo courtesy of C. Pears)
[Penguin Island, near Rockingham, WA, October 2022]

Australian Pelican feeding a chick (photo courtesy of C. Pears)
[Penguin Island, near Rockingham, WA, October 2022]

Australian Pelican brooding a very young chick, see lower right (photo courtesy of C. Pears)
[Penguin Island, near Rockingham, WA, October 2022]

Eggs

"boyanga", "booyanga", "derinya", "dirandil", "koomura", "mirk", "ngampu", "nooluk", "pateena", "pum-pum" = Egg; "dirundirri" = eggs [Aboriginal]; "gawu" = eggs [gamilaraay]

Size: 90 x 57 mm Colour: White Shape: Long elliptical

Australian Pelican nest with two eggs in it (photo courtesy of C. Pears)
[Penguin Island, near Rockingham, WA, October 2022]

Behaviour

Social behaviour: Communal Mobility: Nomadic Elementary unit: Flock

Lateral view of Australian Pelicans collectively rounding up fish (photo courtesy of M. Eaton)
[Lower Brisbane River, QLD, June 2017]

Dorsal view of Australian Pelicans collectively rounding up fish (photo courtesy of M. Eaton)
[Lower Brisbane River, QLD, June 2017]

These Australian Pelicans have learned to catch carp at a lock (photo courtesy of C. Lawrence)
[River Murray, NSW/VIC border, October 2013]

We have observed Australian Pelicans "whiffling" to lose height quickly for landing. While descending, they partially fold their wings (similar to raptors) into a "W" form. While descending rapidly in this way, the wing feathers produce - under the load of the bird's weight of up to 13 kg - a phenomenal roar (not dissimilar to an airplane rattling under full load on extended flaps just before landing) that can be heard over distances of at least 500 m.

Rapidly descending ("whiffling") Australian Pelican; the absence of a dark carpal bar on the underwing and the dusky, rather than black, flight feathers indicate that this bird is a juvenile
[Goran Lake, NSW, April 2012]

Here one reason to keep local waterways clean: Australian Pelican trying to pick up and swallow a plastic bottle; fortunately, in the end the bird did not succeed
[Narrabri Lake, NSW, August 2012]

Flock of about 100 Australian Pelicans riding a thermal in order to gain height, together with one lonesome Royal Spoonbill
[Near Narrabri, NSW, March 2013]

These 35 or so Australian Pelicans have trapped themselves; fishing in a small permanent waterhole there was no way they could take off when a photographer approached them - instead they gathered at the centre of the only about 30-m wide water surface (photo taken from close range with a 55-mm lens)
[Narrabri, NSW, June 2013]

"Fisherman's Friend" - Australian Pelicans can become quite docile, especially when there are free handouts to be scavenged
[Old Bar, NSW, July 2013]

Australian Pelican touching down on water - full flaps, full brakes (photo courtesy of A. Ross-Taylor)
[Tweed River, Tweed Heads, NSW, December 2014]

Australian Pelican touching down on water - here one can see clearly both the upperwing and underwing plumage (photo courtesy of A. Ross-Taylor)
[Tweed River, Tweed Heads, NSW, December 2014]

Twitcher's tip

Australian Pelicans are world-famous for congregating at Lake Eyre - from all around the continent! - when it is full for breeding events involving tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of birds. With such events happening only once in about 30 years, it is surmised that it is the old wise birds that tell all others when and where to go when the time has come. Recently Lake Eyre has been full in two consecutive years, 2010 (with the Cooper Creek reaching the lake for the first time since 1990) and 2011. Other major floods occurred in 1886/1887, 1889/1890, 1916/1917, 1950, 1955, and 1974-1976.

Food, Diet

Adults: Fish Dependents: Regurgitated fish Water intake: Irregular; rain water

Like all other members of the Pelecanus family, Australian Pelicans feed on fish. We have seen them hunt in packs, trapping fish pushing forward in a semi-circular formation.

Australian Pelican gobbling up its catch (photo courtesy of C. Pears)
[Lake Monger, Perth, WA, October 2022]

Australian Pelican with its catch; in order to keep it, this bird had to fend off attempts from various of its mates to steal it
(photo courtesy of J. Ross-Taylor)
[Tweed River, Tweed Heads, NSW, December 2014]

This Australian Pelican has caught a fair-size fish (photo courtesy of C. Hayne)
[Moree, NSW, August 2013]

Typical hunting strategy of Australian Pelicans, rounding up fish by encircling them or, depending on circumstances, pushing them into shallow water
[Goran Lake, NSW, August 2011]

Lateral view of two Australian Pelicans hunting in a shallow lake
[Narrabri Lake, NSW, August 2012]

Call(s)/Song

For this species we have recorded the following call(s)/song. The interpretation of their meaning is our own; comments and suggestions for improvement are welcome.

austpel_20210406.m4a (NW NSW) ? © MD

We have also been able to record the wing beats of an Australian Pelican.

austpel_20231227.m4a (NW NSW) Level flight at low altitude © MD

More Australian Pelican sound recordings are available at xeno-canto.org .

These pages are largely based on our own observations and those of our contributors. The structure of these bird pages is explained HERE. For more salient facts on any bird species please refer to a field guide.

Would you like to contribute photos or sound recordings to this site?
If interested, please CLICK HERE. Credits to contributors are given HERE.