Pelican, Pink-backed

Pelecanus rufescens

This is a small pelican, but its wingspan is still around 2.4 m (7.9 ft) and its average weight is 5.5 kg (12 lbs).  Plumage is grey and white, with a pink back. The top of the bill is yellow and the pouch is usually grayish.  Breeding adults have long feather plumes on the head.








Resident breeder in Africa and southern Arabia


This species inhabits a wide range of aquatic habitats, but prefers to feed in quiet backwaters and weed-grown lagoons where there is shallow water and emergent vegetation, generally avoiding steep, vegetated lake margins. It shows a preference for freshwater lakes, swamps, large slow-flowing rivers, and seasonal pools, but also frequents reservoirs, seasonally flooded land and flood-plains near river mouths. They may be found on alkaline and saline lakes and lagoons, and sometimes along the coast in bays and estuaries (although seldom on open seashore). The species tends to roost and breed in trees (e.g. mangroves), but will also roost on sandy islands, cliffs, coral reefs and sand-dunes. Nesting trees are often killed by repeated nesting, which forces breeding colonies to move (although birds will usually not move far).

Life Expectancy

Up to 30 years

Sexual Maturity

2 – 3 years


In the wild, they feed on fish and amphibians; in the Zoo, they are fed Capelin and threadfin herring.


IUCN – Least Concern


This species makes little known dispersive movements related to water conditions. It is locally nomadic in southern Africa in response to changing wetland conditions, and western African populations make northward movements into sub-Saharan steppe during the wet season, returning southwards in the dry season. The species breeds all year round, although most start late in the wet season. It is gregarious both during breeding and non-breeding season, nesting in small groups or larger loose colonies of between 20 and 500 pairs (often alongside other species). It roosts nocturnally in groups, but is more of a solitary feeder, preferring to fish singly or in small loose groups of less than 30 individuals. It is chiefly diurnally active, especially during the morning and evening, although it may also fish on moonlit nights. The main food of pink-backed pelicans is fish. In addition, they feed on a variety of small invertebrates and amphibians. They usually fish in groups, stretched out in a line to surround a shoal of fish. The pelicans then duck their heads under water at exactly the same time, frightening and confusing the fish which are scooped up in the birds’ pouches. The species nests colonially in trees, reeds or low bushes along waterfronts as well as (less often) on the ground on sandy islands and in mangroves. The nest is small and constructed of sticks, and may be situated at elevations of 10-50 m above the ground. A single tree may contain many nests that can be very close together (often touching), and a single pair will refurbish and re-use the same nest from year to year if it has not collapsed. Pairs are monogamous for a single season, but the pair bond extends only to the nesting area; mates are independent away from the nest. Copulation begins shortly after pairing and continues for 3 to 10 days before egg-laying. The male brings the nesting material crosswise in the bill. The female then heaps the material up to form a simple structure. Both sexes incubate with the eggs on top of or below the feet. They may display when changing shifts. All species lay at least two eggs, and hatching success for undisturbed pairs can be as high as 95 percent, but because of competition between siblings or outright siblicide, usually all but one nestling dies. Chicks feed by violently plunging their heads deep into the adult’s throat pouch and taking the partially digested regurgitated fish. Young fledge 10 to 12 weeks after hatching. They may remain with their parents afterwards, but are now seldom or never fed.


Birds cannot sweat, so when pelicans get hot they cool themselves by fluttering air over the moist skin on the inside of their throat pouches. Pelicans swim well with their short, strong legs and their feet with all four toes webbed (as in all birds placed in the order Pelecaniformes). The tail is short and square, with 20 to 24 feathers. The wings are long and have the unusually large number of 30 to 35 secondary flight feathers. A layer of special fibers deep in the breast muscles can hold the wings rigidly horizontal for gliding and soaring. Thus they can exploit thermals to commute over 150 km (100 miles) to feeding areas. Pelicans rub the backs of their heads on their preen glands to pick up its oily secretion, which they transfer to their plumage to waterproof it.

Special Interests

Why do zoos keep this species? The pink-backed pelican is not an endangered species. Zoos keep it primarily for educational reasons. It is unique in its evolutionary physical and behavioral adaptations for catching fish in social groups. It is also a good ambassador species for wetland conservation and for promoting the African-Eurasian Waterfowl Agreement. Modern pelicans, of which there are eight species, are found on all continents except Antarctica. They occur mostly in warm regions, though breeding ranges reach 45° south (Australian Pelican, P. conspicillatus) and 60° North (American White Pelicans, P. erythrorhynchos, in western Canada). Birds of inland and coastal waters, they are absent from Polar Regions, the deep ocean, oceanic islands, and inland South America. Pelicans can be divided into two groups: those with mostly white adult plumage, which nest on the ground (Australian, Dalmatian, Great White, and American White Pelicans), and those with gray or brown plumage, which nest in trees (Pink-backed, Spot-billed, and Brown, plus the Peruvian Pelican, which nests on sea rocks). 25 October 2006, a pelican swallowed a living pigeon in St. James Park, London. According to tourists watching it, the pelican walked to the pigeon and grabbed it in its beak, hence starting the 20 minutes struggle which ended when the victim was swallowed “head first down while flapping all the way down”. This behavior has been filmed on separate occasions in Saint James Park and also in a zoo in Ukraine. From the fossil record, it is known that pelicans have been around for over 40 million years. The earliest fossil Pelecanus was found in early Miocene deposits in France. A prehistoric genus has been named Miopelecanus, while Protopelicanus may be a pelicanid or pelecaniform – or a similar aquatic bird such as a pseudotooth bird (Pelagornithidae). The supposed Miocene pelican Liptornis from Argentina is a nomen dubium, being based on hitherto indeterminable fragments.


In medieval Europe, the pelican was thought to be particularly attentive to her young, to the point of providing her own blood when no other food was available. As a result, the pelican became a symbol of the Passion of Jesus and of the Eucharist. It also became a symbol in bestiaries for self-sacrifice, and was used in heraldry (“a pelican in her piety” or “a pelican vulning (wounding) herself”). Another version of this is that the pelican used to kill its young and then resurrect them with its blood, this being analogous to the sacrifice of Jesus. Thus the symbol of the Irish Blood Transfusion Service (IBTS) is a pelican, and for most of its existence the headquarters of the service was located at Pelican House in Dublin, Ireland. The emblems of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge and Corpus Christi College, Oxford are pelicans, showing its use as a medieval Christian symbol (‘Corpus Christi’ means ‘body of Christ’). Likewise a folktale from India says that a pelican killed her young by rough treatment but was then so contrite that she resurrected them with her own blood. These legends may have arisen because the pelican used to suffer from a disease that left a red mark on its chest. Alternatively it may be that pelicans look as if they are stabbing themselves as they often press their bill into their chest to fully empty their pouch. Yet other possibilities are that they often rest their bills on their breasts, and that the Dalmatian Pelican has a blood-red pouch in the early breeding season. The symbol is used today on the Louisiana state flag and Louisiana state seal, as the Brown pelican is the Louisiana state bird. The pelican is featured prominently on the seal of Louisiana State University. A pelican logo is used by the Portuguese bank Montepio Geral. The Moche people of ancient Peru worshipped nature. They placed emphasis on animals and often depicted pelicans in their art. A pelican is depicted on the reverse of the Albanian 1 lek coin, issued in 1996. The pelican has also been the subject of a poem by John Bennet and subsequent song—The Pelican—by Richard Proulx, composed in 1995. The song was dedicated to the Cathedral Choir of the Cathedral of the Madeleine, Salt Lake City, Utah.


From the IUCN: the pink-backed pelican has an extremely large range, and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the range size criterion. The population trend appears to be stable, and hence the species does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population trend criterion. The population size is very large, and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population size criterion. For these reasons the species is evaluated as Least Concern. The pink-backed pelican is native to Angola, Benin, Botswana, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Africa, Sudan, Swaziland, United Republic of Tanzania, Uganda, Yemen, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. It is regionally extinct in Madagascar, and a vagrant in Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Poland. This species is threatened by habitat loss in KwaZulu-Natal, as many suitable pans and flood-plains are being altered through drainage and cultivation, and the natural flooding regime of pans in the Pongolo system has been altered by the Jozini Dam. In southern Africa disturbance of the species is increasing at estuaries as these areas become more intensively used and developed. The species is also susceptible to bioaccumulation of toxins in their body tissue, which may lead to a decline in reproductive success. Destruction of nesting trees due to logging activities may be a local problem.

Jacksonville Zoo History

The Jacksonville Zoo held pink-backed pelicans from 1992-1993 and then brought the species back again in 2010.


Off Exhibit/Behind the Scenes