Featured family: Pelicans of Panama

Pelicans - Pelecanidae family


Pelicans are a genus of large water birds that makes up the family Pelecanidae. They are characterised by a long beak and throat pouch. They have predominantly pale plumage, the exceptions being the Brown and Peruvian pelicans. The bills, pouches and bare facial skin of all species become brightly coloured before the breeding season. The eight living pelican species have a patchy global distribution, ranging latitudinally from the tropics to the temperate zone, though they are absent from interior South America as well as from polar regions and the open ocean.

Pelicans frequent inland and coastal waters where they feed principally on fish, catching them at or near the water surface. They are gregarious birds, travelling in flocks, hunting cooperatively and breeding colonially.

Pelicans are very large birds with very long bills characterised by a downcurved hook at the end of the upper mandible, and the attachment of a large throat pouch used for catching prey and draining water from the scooped up contents before swallowing. They have a long neck and short stout legs with large, fully webbed feet. Although they are among the heaviest of flying birds, they are relatively light for their apparent bulk because of air pockets in the skeleton and beneath the skin enabling them to float high in the water. The tail is short and square. The wings are long and broad, suitably shaped for soaring and gliding flight.

Two of the eight world species occur in Panama, the Brown Pelican and the American White Pelican

The Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) being Panama's only regularly occurring species is mainly coastal. Its enormous size, relative to other regular species in Panama, and large bill make them unmistakable. They are very common on both coasts where they are often seen gliding over the water or soaring higher in lines or V formations; they fish by plunge-diving. They breed on islands in the Pacific, and sometimes are seen soaring far inland crossing between coasts.

The Brown Pelican lives on both coasts in the Americas. On the Atlantic Coast and Gulf Coast they distribute from Nova Scotia to Venezuela, and to the mouth of the Amazon River, and usually less common north of the Carolinas, with a considerable population in much of the Gulf of Mexico. On the Pacific Ocean they are found from British Columbia to south central Chile, and including the Galapagos Islands, being fairly common along the coast of California, Mexico and Central America. Some immature birds may stray to inland freshwater lakes. 

Disregarding its large size is the smallest of the eight species of pelican, it is 106–137 cm (42–54 in) in length, weighs from 2.75 to 5.5 kg (6.1 to 12.1 lb) and has a wingspan from 1.83 to 2.5 m (6.0 to 8.2 ft). The head is white but often gets a yellowish wash in adult birds. The bill is grayish overall in most birds, though breeding birds become reddish on the underside of the throat. The back, rump, and tail are streaked with gray and dark brown, sometimes with a rusty hue. In adult pelicans, the breast and belly are a blackish-brown and the legs and feet are black. The juvenile is similar but has a brownish-gray neck and white underparts.

The Peruvian Pelican, previously considered a subspecies of Brown Pelican, is now considered to be a separate species. It has very similar plumage but it is noticeably larger. The brown and Peruvian pelicans may overlap in some areas along the Pacific coast of South America.

This bird is readily distinguished from the American White Pelican by its non-white plumage, smaller size and its habit of diving for fish from the air, as opposed to co-operative fishing from the surface. 



 Juveniles are mostly brownish with pale underpants and gray bill. 


 Adults are more colorful, with a yellowish head, white neck and yellow to orange bills.


A cormorant, a molting to breeding adult, a molting to adult and a breeding adult


Breeding adults have brown back of neck


They have a wingspan from 1.83 to 2.5 m (6.0 to 8.2 ft)



Are often seen gliding over the water



The American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) is a vagrant for Panama, with a few records from Herrera, eastern Panamá Province, and recently Panama City. They nest in colonies of several hundred pairs on islands in remote brackish and freshwater lakes of inland North America. They winter on the Pacific and Gulf of Mexico coasts from central California and Florida south to Panama, and along the Mississippi River at least as far north as St. Louis, Missouri. In winter quarters, they are rarely found on the open seashore, preferring estuaries and lakes. They cross deserts and mountains but avoid the open ocean on migration. But stray birds, often blown off course by hurricanes, have been seen in the Caribbean, and has been recorded in San Andrés Island, and also been a few observations likely to pertain to this species on the South American mainland.

It is very large and plump, with an overall length about 50–70 in (130–180 cm), courtesy of the huge beak which measures 11.3–15.2 in (290–390 mm) in males and 10.3–14.2 in (260–360 mm) in females. It has a wingspan of about 95–120 in (240–300 cm), this large wingspan allows the bird to easily use soaring flight for migration. The plumage is almost entirely bright white, except the black primary and secondary remiges, which are hardly visible except in flight. The bill is huge and flat on the top, with a large throat sac below, and, in the breeding season, is vivid orange in color as is the iris, the bare skin around the eye, and the feet. During the breeding season, both males and females develop a pronounced bump on the top of their large beaks. This conspicuous growth is shed by the end of the breeding season. This is the only one of the eight species of pelican to have a bill "horn". Outside the breeding season the bare parts become duller in color, with the naked facial skin yellow and the bill is pinkish, pouch and feet have an orangy-flesh color. 

Unlike the Brown Pelican, the American White Pelican does not dive for its food. Instead it catches its prey while swimming as has been observed in Panamá Viejo (the most recent report, photographed here), upper part of Panama Bay. They usually do this cooperatively but this individual has proven to be very self-sufficient fishing alone in the high tides in this estuary-like environment when the waves wash fish an other food to the coast.


Waiting the high tide to start fishing.

Surfing the waves while catching prey


 Dull bare parts are sings of a non-breeding individual. 


In flight the black feathers are evident.







It has a wingspan of about 2.4 to 3 m (7.9 to 10 ft)