AskDefine | Define pelican

Dictionary Definition

pelican n : large long-winged warm-water seabird having a large bill with a distensible pouch for fish

User Contributed Dictionary



From Greek via Latin



  1. Any of various seabirds of the family Pelecanidae, having a long bill with a distendable pouch

Derived terms


Extensive Definition

A pelican is any of several very large water birds with a distinctive pouch under the beak belonging to the bird family Pelecanidae.
Along with the darters, cormorants, gannets, boobies, frigatebirds, and tropicbirds, pelicans make up the order Pelecaniformes. Modern pelicans 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 are large birds with enormous, pouched bills. The smallest is the Brown Pelican (P. occidentalis), small individuals of which can be as little as 2.75 kg (6 lb), 106 cm (42 in) long and can have a wingspan of as little as 1.83 m (6 ft). The largest is believed to be the Dalmatian Pelican (P. crispus), at up to 15 kg (33 lb), 183 cm (72 in) long, with a maximum wingspan of nearly 3.5 m (11.5 ft). The Australian Pelican has the longest bill of any bird They often catch fish by expanding the throat pouch. Then they must drain the pouch above the surface before they can swallow. This operation takes up to a minute, during which time other seabirds are particularly likely to steal the fish. Pelicans in their turn sometimes pirate prey from other seabirds. and that of the latter at 13,000 to 18,000. The most common is believed to be the Australian Pelican (though some estimates have placed the White Pelican at a higher population).


From the fossil record, it is known that pelicans have been around for over 40 million years, the earliest fossil Pelecanus being found in early Miocene deposits in France. Prehistoric genera have been named Protopelicanus and Miopelecanus. The supposed Miocene pelican Liptornis from Argentina is a nomen dubium, being based on hitherto indeterminable fragments.
A number of fossil species are also known from the extant genus Pelecanus:
  • Pelecanus alieus (Late Pliocene of Idaho, USA)
  • Pelecanus cadimurka
  • Pelecanus cauleyi
  • Pelecanus gracilis
  • Pelecanus halieus
  • Pelecanus intermedius
  • Pelecanus odessanus
  • Pelecanus schreiberi
  • Pelecanus sivalensis
  • Pelecanus tirarensis

Symbolism and culture

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.
For example, the emblems of both 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. They placed emphasis on animals and often depicted pelicans in their art.

Exceptional behaviour

A pelican swallowed a living pigeon in St. James Park, London in October 2006. According to tourists watching, the pelican strolled to the pigeon and grabbed it into its beak, a 20 minute struggle ensued, which ended with pigeon being swallowed "head first down while flapping all the way down".
In May 2008, a woman bore 20 stitches after a pelican rammed into her face and died. The pelican was believed to be diving for fish in the sea off Florida.



Havana Bay

External links

pelican in Old English (ca. 450-1100): Dūfedoppa
pelican in Arabic: بجعة
pelican in Catalan: Pelicà
pelican in Danish: Pelikaner
pelican in German: Pelikane
pelican in Spanish: Pelecanus
pelican in Esperanto: Pelikano
pelican in French: Pelecanidae
pelican in Scottish Gaelic: Pelican
pelican in Ido: Pelikano
pelican in Indonesian: Burung undan
pelican in Italian: Pelecanus
pelican in Georgian: ვარხვისებრნი
pelican in Lithuanian: Pelikanai
pelican in Hungarian: Gödényfélék
pelican in Dutch: Pelikanen
pelican in Japanese: ペリカン
pelican in Norwegian: Pelikaner
pelican in Polish: Pelikanowate
pelican in Portuguese: Pelicano
pelican in Russian: Пеликаны
pelican in Simple English: Pelican
pelican in Slovak: Pelikánovité
pelican in Swedish: Pelikaner
pelican in Thai: นกกระทุง
pelican in Turkish: Pelikan
pelican in Ukrainian: Пелікани
pelican in Chinese: 鹈鹕属
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