Does a Pelican's Bill Hold More Than Its Belly Can?

Pelican Feeding: What's on the Menu?

While most pelicans eat fish exclusively, they can be opportunistic lizards, frogs, crabs and lobsters. Pelicans have even been observed eating smaller birds, sometimes scooping up water in order to drown them before swallowing. In 2006, a photographer in London's St. James Park recorded an extraordinary sight. The five pelicans currently living in the park are fed a diet of fish, but apparently that wasn't enough for one of them. A pelican picked up a pigeon from the sidewalk and swallowed it, to the shock and amazement of park visitors. Since the incident, other people claimed to have seen the St. James Park pelicans eating pigeons. A representative for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds said that this behavior was highly unusual and likely attributed to the birds' contact with people and its more urban environment.

Sometimes pelicans tag along with other birds tracking their prey in the water, stealing the fish right from under them. They themselves are victims of pirating on occasion. It can take a few seconds for a pelican to drain all the water out of its pouch, during which time a gull — often standing on the pelican's head and pecking it as a distraction — darts into its open bill and steals the fish.


Aside from catching their prey, pelicans use their bill for other things. During courtship, male pelicans often stretch out and flap their pouches and clap their bills repeatedly. They may also lash out at rivals and other threats with the sharp hook at the end. Baby chicks are fed by both parents, who regurgitate partially digested fish for them to eat. Chicks that are old enough to eat whole fish but not yet ready to hunt may be seen "fishing" for dinner inside their parents' pouches. Pelicans that live in warm climates sometimes open their bills and flap their pouches in order to cool down.

Fossil records show that pelicans have been around for more than 40 million years, so regardless of how weird the pouch might seem to us, it's served the bird well. With the continued efforts of conservationists, hopefully pelicans will be around for a long time and continue to amaze and intrigue us — especially if they mostly lay off snacking on pigeons.

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More Great Links


  • "American White Pelican." Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds, 2003.
  • Audubon: Birds & Science
  • "Brown Pelican." Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds, 2003.
  • Clarke, James. "Pelican's pigeon meal not so rare." BBC News, October 30, 2006.
  • "Dalmatian Pelican.", 2008.
  • "Great White Pelican.", 2008.
  • Johnsgard, Paul A. "Cormorants, Darters and Pelicans of the World." Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993.
  • "Pelican Swallows Pigeon in Park." BBC News, October 25, 2006.
  • Siegal, Ann Cameron. "Pelicans Get Clean Bill of Health." Washington Post, May 7, 2008; Page C14.
  • "Spot-billed Pelican.", 2008.