Pelicans are one of the easiest identifiable birds on the planet. Well known for the pouches on their bills and their mischievous behavior, pelicans are opportunistic, diverse birds living on all continents except Antarctica.
As opportunists, pelicans have a very diverse diet. Because their species has been on Earth for more than 30 million years, they’ve developed a very unique, skilled fishing technique. While most people see these birds hunting off the coast, the question remains: What do Pelicans Eat?
Pelicans eat a wide array of fish, depending on the species and where they are in their migration pattern. While at sea, they primarily rely on small fish like anchovies and sardines. Because pelicans are opportunistic carnivores, they also eat small reptiles, amphibians, and crustaceans. They have even been seen to try to consume pigeons, cats, crabs, and seagulls.
American White Pelican eating a fish
Since they travel between freshwater and oceanic ecosystems, pelican’s diets vary season to season. However, as well as anchovies and sardines, they are also known to eat larger, “rough” fish like menhaden, herring, sheepshead, pigfish, mullet, grass minnows, topminnows, and silverside.
As pelicans become more aware of human societies, they have been found eating garbage, bread, and other meats. While it may seem that pelicans are now incorporating new foods into their diet, pelicans lack digestive enzymes to process anything other than fish successfully. Feeding pelicans can be highly dangerous because they are likely to suffer digestive issues after consumption. As many fishermen and coastal communities tell, pelicans will mostly vomit up human foods consumed earlier that day.
Pelicans are very opportunistic birds! Read on to uncover the feeding habits and behaviors of these birds, as well as who their predators are.
A pair of Brown Pelicans diving for fish
Interestingly enough, pelicans can practice both social and solo hunting. Two ways that pelicans hunt for food include:
Pelicans have many other exciting hunting behaviors listed below.
A group of Brown Pelicans hunting for fish together
Since pelicans are primarily opportunistic, they eat whatever is available. However, not all that is available is digestible to pelicans. Pelicans can successfully eat small reptiles, other amphibians, and crustaceans, and they have also been seen eating small birds and other animals.
Although seasonal eating patterns largely depend on each pelican species, the most famous migration is the American White Pelican. While this pelican spends its breeding season in freshwaters across North America, it primarily lives on along the California and Gulf Coast for winter.
During the colder winter months, pelicans generally eat oceanic fish, amphibians, and crustaceans.
A wintering Great White Pelican (Pelecanus onocrotalus) with Dalmatian Pelicans in Greece
Pelicans have large migration patterns, so what they eat depends on their location.
Contrary to popular belief, pelicans don’t store their day’s catch in their bill. Once they catch prey using their pouch, they dump the excess water and swallow the fish whole.
When you see a pelican, you’ll notice their swallow motion with the obvious tilt of their beak. This motion straightens out the pelican’s neck and allows the fish to go into their stomach.
On the other hand, baby pelicans eat by either reaching for regurgitated fish in their parents’ bills or by “fishing” when their bills are full of water.
A pelican swallowing a fish for lunch
Although it’s prohibited by law and highly unsuggested, sometimes feeding pelicans is necessary to capture and save them. Because feeding pelicans anything but fish can make them sick, here are the best suggestions:
It’s also important to note that although pelicans might look like they are starving and in need of help, most of the time, they are not. As they’ve infiltrated human society, they’ve learned behaviors that get them the most food.
Until they are developed and strong enough to fish for themselves, pelican chicks eat regurgitated fish from their parents’ bills. From there, pelicans will teach their young how to fish by providing a mini “pool” in their bills. They will catch prey and allow their young to “hunt” it inside the bill.
Thus, pelican chicks eat whatever their parents eat. This is another reason why feeding pelicans is dangerous: it might lead to a pelican feeding their young nutrient-deficient foods.
Pelican feeding its young
Although widely contested, scientists do not currently believe that pelicans are omnivores. It's fairly common to see them picking up garbage or leftovers on the street, but consuming non-fish foods leads to digestive issues for pelicans, and eventually, vomiting the item back up. Pelicans don’t have the digestive enzymes to break down anything other than fish, so they shouldn’t eat anything but fish.
Because of their constant interaction with saltwater, pelicans have evolved to have a desalination filter. Through salt glands and tube nostrils, sea birds can drink seawater without becoming dehydrated. Through this process and their diet of fish, they mainly drink seawater.
Galapagos Pelican with a full mouth of water
Pelicans are most likely to be predated before they hatch from their eggs. Many animals, including small reptiles, alligators, dogs, cats, and raccoons, eat pelican eggs. While at sea, their largest predators are sharks and sea lions. Most pelicans, including the American White and Brown Pelican, gather together to avoid this predation.
Since pelicans are opportunistic carnivores, it may be believable that they would go after jellyfish. However, scientists don’t currently believe that pelicans do this.
A couple of reasons why pelicans don’t eat jellyfish are:
White Pelicans in Florida, USA
Because of the opportunistic nature of pelicans, eating turtles does happen from time to time. However, the turtle must be small enough and the pelican hungry enough, for them to likely consume the turtle.
That being said, since pelicans swallow their prey whole, the turtle must be small enough to fit down their throat. It is also likely that they feed on turtle eggs during hatching season. But, it is unlikely that pelicans go out of their way for a meal that small in size.
As mentioned previously, pelicans try to put many things into their stomachs, but whether they can digest them or not is a different story.
Pelicans eat eggs and hatchlings when other food supplies are low. In addition, there are videos out there suggesting that pelicans even try to eat larger birds like pigeons, gulls, and ducklings.
Pelican in flight, searching for food
While pelicans are out of the water, they commonly hang out around other birds. If they feel so inclined to eat a bird, they will:
As pelicans have to eat up to 6.8 lbs of food in one day, they try to eat many things. While most of their food consists of fish, crustaceans, and amphibians, sometimes they branch out for other small animals.
Whilst pelicans would likely try to eat a full-grown cat, it isn’t very likely that they would succeed. Not only would the pelican not be able to digest a cat, but a cat’s sharp claws would likely cause the pelican to spit the cat out.
However, an unsuspecting kitten would be a different story.
Because pelicans aren’t going to put up a fight against a crab’s claws, they are unlikely to eat a fully-functioning crab. That being said, they are much more likely to eat a dead or disabled crab.
Pelicans only go after birds and other mammals during very dire times. Pelicans will take the opportunity to eat whatever is in front of them, including a seagull, but there are many other animals that a pelican would prefer to eat first.
Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) fishing in Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, California, USA
It isn't typical for pelicans to feed on full-sized ducks because a duck can put up a good fight and contains lots of feathers to digest. However, it's pretty common for pelicans to prey on ducklings and duck eggs when fish supply is low, though.
Although their wingspan is up to 10 feet wide, pelicans aren’t that big of a bird. Because of their small body size, pelicans cannot eat most full-sized dogs. Although they may try, they are very likely to be unsuccessful.
Sharks definitely eat pelicans when given a chance. This is one of the reasons why pelicans gather in flocks, to avoid being eaten by large predators like sharks.
Do you have a question about this topic that we haven't answered? Submit it below, and one of our experts will answer as soon as they can.
Get the latest BirdFacts delivered straight to your inbox