Pelicans are unmistakable with their enormous bills and giant webbed feet. There are only eight species of pelicans, though they are distributed across every continent except the Arctic and Antarctica. Pelicans are truly enormous birds with wingspans ranging up to 3.5m in the case of the Dalmatian pelican and Great white pelican, but do pelicans migrate?
Some species of pelicans are partially migratory, including the American White pelican, Brown pelican, Great white pelican and Dalmatian pelican. However, not all colonies migrate at all; some choose to stay where they are all year round, whereas others will migrate just a short distance.
Migrating pelicans are an incredible sight as they usually travel in large groups, forming a ‘V’ or line formation as they soar through the sky. Pelicans are enormous birds; in terms of wingspan, the Great white pelican is topped only by the Wandering albatross at 3.6m vs 3.7m (so only by around 10cm!)
Pelican migration is still poorly understood, partly because they have such a wide range and partly because different colonies or pods have varying migratory behaviours. Read on to learn more about the migratory behaviours of this truly gigantic water bird!
A small flock of Brown Pelicans flying in formation
Of the eight species of pelicans, only four are partially migratory. Some populations of these pelicans will travel only short distances. The primary goal of migration is to find a warmer, food-abundant environment, and most pelicans will not travel further than they need to to find it.
Pelican migration patterns and behaviours vary with the colony or pod. For example, some pods will migrate longer distances than others, despite being in similar locations.
American white pelican: usually migratory, migrating from Alberta, the Northwest Territories, Washington state, Ontario, California and other parts of North America towards the Gulf of Mexico, southern California, Florida and Panama. Some may rarely end up in Colombia. American white pelicans in Texas and Central America rarely migrate.
Dalmatian pelican: usually migratory, but populations in warmer regions don’t travel far. Some colonies migrate from as far north as Russia and North-East Europe to the Middle-East, Nepal and India. Mongolian colonies travel to China and India. Dalmatia pelican migratory behaviours are sporadic, unpredictable and complex.
Dalmatian Pelicans usually migrate, but not usually long distances
Brown pelican: sometimes migratory, migrating along the coast from as far north as New Jersey and British Columbia to northern Chile and the Galapagos Islands. Brown pelican migration is complex and quite unpredictable. Some Brown pelicans on the Atlantic side head north in winter rather than south, probably in search of fish.
Great white pelican: usually migratory. African populations are resident. Eastern European populations sometimes migrate to North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. Some reach as far south as Bali. Again, Great White pelican migratory behaviours and routes seem complex and hard to predict.
Pink-backed pelican: non-migratory resident of Africa, India and Arabia.
Australian pelican: generally not migratory, but they do travel around their range of Australia, New Guinea, Fiji, Indonesia and the South Pacific islands.
Peruvian pelican: non-migratory resident of Peru, Ecuador and Chile.
Spot-billed pelican: non-migratory resident of southern Asia, India and Indonesia.
Australian Pelicans are generally non-migratory
Migratory species and pods of pelicans usually migrate towards the end of the typical breeding season, which starts in around April or May. At the end of summer, typically in September and October, migratory pelicans start heading south.
Some pods or colonies of pelicans are known for their fluctuating migratory behaviours. Rather than migrating as per a routine clock or calendar like most birds, they seem to migrate earlier, some years and later others.
Pelicans are specialised to temperate and subtropical environments, so they prefer to migrate to warmer regions during winter. This is why almost all North European and North American pelicans migrate, whereas southern species in Africa and Asia rarely migrate or travel short distances.
Pelicans also migrate in search of food. For example, the Brown pelican can sometimes migrate north to rather than south, probably because their favoured fish are more abundant there in winter.
Brown Pelicans often migrate northwards instead of south
Pelicans head for warmer, more food-abundant environments during the winter. Despite being large and hardy birds, pelicans aren’t generally a fan of freezing winters, and almost all northerly populations migrate. Populations in the south are usually resident or sedentary, e.g. in Central America, Texas and Florida in the Americas and Africa, South Asia, Australia and the Oceanic island in the rest of the world.
The American white pelican migrates to different locations depending on where they bread. For example, those breeding towards the east of the Rocky Mountains head south towards the Gulf of Mexico. On the west side of the Rockies, pelicans tend to migrate to the Pacific coast.
Brown pelicans also tend to head down the east or west US coastline. Some end up in Chile, Peru and Ecuador and others ending up in east Mexico, the West Indies, Venezuela and Colombia.
Great white pelicans migrate from East Europe and Central Asia, in Kazakhstan and Russia, to East Africa and South Asia. Some East Asian colonies fly down to Indonesia. The wide distribution of Great white pelicans means that their migration routes are still somewhat of a mystery.
Dalmatian pelicans tend to breed either in Eastern Europe or in Central Asia and Russia. Eastern European populations often migrate to the Mediterranean, whereas Central Asian and Russian populations usually migrate to the Indian subcontinent, Iran and Iraq. Some pelicans find themselves even further south in India.
When migrating, pelicans do not usually complete the whole journey in one go. Instead, they maintain several stop-off points where some pelicans may remain for longer than others, giving the impression that they’re lost.
Pelicans are freshwater or coastal waterbirds, but they tend to avoid the open ocean. Their preferred habitats are lagoons, lakes, coastal beaches, marshes or other wetlands.
Great White Pelican coming in to land
Pelicans have huge wingspans and can soar effortlessly, making migration a relatively easy task. They usually fly in a ‘V-shaped formation which reduces energy consumption and aids in navigation. The birds towards the back of the formation take advantage of the slipstream, making flying easier. When the front birds get tired, they swap roles.
Pelicans don’t complete the entire journey in one go - they take breaks to replenish their energy reserves with food and water. Whilst they’re likely capable of non-stop long-distance flight, this just isn’t their preference!
A flock of American White Pelicans migrating in flight
Pelicans usually don’t winter in freezing conditions - most pelicans distributed across northerly latitudes migrate every year. Pelicans are hardy, though, and they can certainly handle freezing temperatures if required. When pelicans staying further north experience very cold weather, they may undertake a late migration. Some colonies of Brown pelicans have been known to migrate as late as December!
Brown pelicans do migrate and some travel large distances down both the Atlantic and Pacific coast, from New Jersey and British Columbia as far south as Chile and Venezuela. However, there are pockets of resident Brown pelicans along much of this route and some don’t return to the same locations each year. Moreover, some Brown pelicans actually head slightly north during winter, likely following increased concentrations of fish. As a result, they’re sometimes called dispersive rather than migratory.
Australian pelicans do not migrate in the conventional sense, but they do disperse widely throughout their range. Extending for thousands of miles across Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia and the Pacific Islands, Australian pelicans are dispersive and can fly long distances in search of food. Moreover, they may travel all throughout the year, rather than at the end of the conventional breeding season.
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