What Do Pelicans Eat?

Written by Colby Maxwell
Published: January 14, 2022
Image Credit JaklZdenek/Shutterstock.com


Pelicans are large water birds known for their “scooping” mouth pouch used to catch fish in the water. There are currently eight living pelican species present in many regions all around the world. Pelicans are rather famous, a side effect of their involvement in movies and pop culture Finding Nemo being chief among them. They are also the national bird of Romania and three Caribbean countries, as well as the mascot for sports teams worldwide. Let’s take a look at these fascinating birds and learn: what do pelicans eat?

What do pelicans eat?

What Do Pelicans Eat
Pelicans eat mostly fish but include crustaceans, small reptiles, and occasionally other birds in their diet.

Image CreditA-Z-Animals.com

Pelicans eat mostly fish but will occasionally eat amphibians, insects, birds, and small mammals.

A pelican’s diet is entirely meat, firmly placing it as a carnivore and predator in whatever ecological niche they happen to live. As large seabirds, pelicans primarily feed on fish and gather most of their caloric needs from or near the ocean. Depending on the species, pelicans will take fish as small as a few inches, all the way up to a few feet in length.

Pink-backed pelicans, for example, are known to eat fish up to 1 lb, while the larger great white pelican is able to take fish up to a whopping 4.2 lbs. A pelican’s typical fish selection primarily depends on its location, but common fish across the world are menhaden, herring, sheepshead, pigfish, minnows, silversides, and mullet. Pelicans that live on the Pacific coast often rely on anchovies and sardines to make up the bulk of their fish diet.

Aside from fish, pelicans are known to eat amphibians (frogs and salamanders), turtles, crustaceans (shrimp and crayfish), insects, and other birds. Interestingly, birds are a large food source for many pelican species. Great white pelicans, for example, have been recorded swelling pigeons in various parks in London. Additionally, Australian, brown, and Peruvian pelicans regularly eat young birds in their respective regions.

A complete list of foods pelicans eat

Here is a complete list of foods that pelicans eat:

  • anchovies
  • sardines
  • herring
  • sheepshead
  • pigfish
  • mullet
  • minnows
  • menhaden
  • crabs
  • lizards
  • frogs
  • turtles
  • birds

How do pelicans hunt?

What Do Pelicans Eat? - White pelican in flight, catching the fish, Namibia, Africa
Pelicans will eat up to 4 lbs of fish every day.

Image CreditMZPHOTO.CZ/Shutterstock.com

Pelicans are amazing hunters, catching prey significantly larger than seems possible for them. For some species, the required 4 lbs of fish a day means some unique ways to hunt. Let’s look through them now.

Group feeding

Pelicans can fish in group formations or totally alone. In groups, the pelicans will find shallow-water schools of fish and round them up into a small area. Beating their wings on the surface of the water, they drive them further towards the shore, where they can be picked off easily. Once they have been rounded up, they take turns swooping down and grabbing fish with their beaks. Occasionally, certain species of pelicans are known to work with other species of birds to perform the same tactics.

Solitary feeding

When feeding solitarily, they will spot fish in the water and swoop down to grab them. Larger fish need to be grabbed with the tips of their bills, allowing them to flip their catch into the air, catching it in their pouch. Some species of pelican will dive from 70 feet up, plunging into the water to scoop fish up in their pouch. Once they get back to the surface, they drain the pouch by tipping their head, allowing them to swallow their catch whole.

While some prey is caught from diving into the water, most of it is done from the surface of the water. The swimming pelican simply reaches its mouth into the water, scoops up fish in its pouch, and proceeds to drain it as necessary.

Many pelicans have to be wary of other small seabirds who regularly try to steal from the larger pelicans. Often, they will sit on a pelican’s head while it’s draining water from its pouch and peck it. When the pelican turns to respond, they swoop around and grab a small fish. Gulls often perform this maneuver.

Do pelicans store things in their pouch?

What Do Pelicans Eat? - Dalmatian Pelican eats fish with in the snowy environment, Pelecanus crispus, Kerkini Lake, Greece
Pelicans do not store food in their mouth pouch, but instead use it to hunt.

Image CreditJaklZdenek/Shutterstock.com

There is a popular belief that pelicans store food (or other items) in their mouth pouch. While movies and television may promote this, it’s untrue. Aside from using it to catch small fish in the water, they don’t use the pouch for anything else. This pouch, known as a gular, is only used to catch, but not store, prey.

Still, these pouches are truly massive. Pelicans have the largest beaks of any bird, sometimes reaching 18 inches long. Additionally, some resources claim that pelicans have the ability to catch up to three gallons of water in their gulars. To put that in perspective, three gallons of water is equal to 25 lbs situated in the pelican’s mouth (not including the potential weight of a fish). For a bird that weighs between 11 and 20 lbs, this is truly remarkable.

How do baby pelicans eat?

What Do Pelicans Eat? - A Pair of Pelican chicks in nest
Baby pelicans eat by reaching their beaks into their parent’s throats to grab food.

Image CreditJulie rubacha/Shutterstock.com

There is a popular belief that a pelican would cut itself to feed its babies in times of great need. This belief translated into many countries using the pelican as a symbol of sacrifice and patience in the light of great pain. Additionally, Christian symbolism combined with these beliefs, resulting in the feast of Corpus Christi, the Eucharist, and the Passion of Jesus being represented by a pelican. Although pelicans don’t actually do this, the remnants from this symbolism still exist today and can be seen on the heraldry of the Corpus Christi College of Oxford and Cambridge.

In reality, pelicans feed their young by opening their mouths and allowing the babies to stick their beaks into their throats to retrieve food. While this isn’t as symbolic or beautiful as bloodletting on behalf of your children, it’s rather typical of large bird species.

A poem about pelicans and their diets:

A famous limerick was written by Dixon Lanier Merritt in 1910 about pelicans and their ability to catch large amounts of fish in their pouches:

A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His bill will hold more than his belican,
He can take in his beak
Food enough for a week,
But I’m damned if I see how the helican.

Oxford Dictionary

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