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Australian Pelicans

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pelican
Australian Pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus)

The Australian Pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus) is common throughout the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

Size

Pelicans are big birds, and the Australian pelican is the largest of the world's seven species. Males are larger than females.

The best-known feature of pelicans is their very long bill and famously massive throat pouch. The bill is 40 - 50 cm long and is larger in males than females. Australian Pelicans have the longest beaks of any bird in the world.

Pelicans weigh 4.0 - 6.8 kg, and are 1.6 - 1.8 m long.  

Large but light

They have large wings and a wingspan of 2.3 - 2.5 m. They are powerful gliders, and on hot tropical days can often be seen circling high on thermals, sometimes for hours on end. Flight at 1,000m is common, and heights of 3 000 m have been recorded, and in 24 hours they can cover hundreds of kilometres.

One reason pelicans can stay aloft for so long is that their skeletons are very light - less than 10 per cent of their body weight.

Range

In addition to the Great Barrier Reef, Australian pelicans range inland to lakes, and rivers, along the coastline, and to estuaries and swamps throughout Australia, Papua New Guinea and western Indonesia. They occasionally get blown out to sea and have turned up in New Zealand and several western Pacific islands.

Diet

Fish are the mainstay of a pelican's diet, but they will eat almost anything, including aquatic animals such as crustaceans, tadpoles and turtles. During lean times pelicans have been seen cannibalising seagulls and ducklings. They will also pirate prey from other birds.

Pelicans hold food in their pouches for only a short time. They are used principally as nets to capture food - and sometimes even rainwater. According to the Australian Museum, a pelican's bill can hold up to 13 litres fully extended.

Pelicans may feed alone, but more often feeds as part of a group that works together. These groups can occasionally be very large - one flock contained over 1,900 birds. The pelicans work together to herd fish into shallow water where they scoop them up with their huge bills.

Reproduction

After courtship and mating, the female digs the scrape in the ground with her bill and feet, which forms the nest. She lines it with vegetation or feathers. The first of two or three eggs is laid within three days, and the remaining eggs two to three days apart. The eggs are incubated on the parents' feet.

Both parents share the incubation of between 32 and 35 days. The first-hatched chick is usually much bigger than its brothers or sisters and gets most of the food. Sometimes they may even attack and kill their siblings. After a month or so, the chicks leave their nests and, like some Antarctic penguins, form crèches of up to 100 birds for about two months. At the end of this time they have learnt to fly and are fairly independent of their parents.

Nesting pelicans scare easily

Large numbers nest on islands in the north and south of the Park, during the winter months.

Paradoxically, while pelicans are the largest seabird in the Park, they are also the most easily disturbed by human activity. Entire colonies have been known to desert their nests when disturbed.

Longevity

Wild birds may live between ten and 25 years (or more).