Do Pelicans Eat Other Birds?

Pelicans are large waterbirds with characteristic throat pouches that have fascinated nature lovers for ages. If you’ve seen them gliding low over the water and scooping up fish into their bills, you’ve probably wondered – do pelicans eat other birds too?

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: While pelicans mainly eat fish, they are opportunistic feeders and may occasionally eat other birds, but this does not make up a significant part of their diet.

In this detailed article, we’ll explore the pelicans’ varied diet, hunting techniques, reasons they may eat other birds on occasion, which species are most likely to do so, and more. We’ll also look at some interesting facts about these unique birds along the way.

An Overview of Pelicans’ Diet

Pelicans are large water birds known for their distinctive throat pouches and impressive diving abilities. They are highly skilled hunters that primarily feed on fish, but their diet is not limited to just fish. Let’s take a closer look at what pelicans eat.

Fish are their staple prey

Fish make up the majority of the pelicans’ diet. These birds are excellent fishers and have adapted well to their aquatic environment. They use their keen eyesight to spot fish from above and then dive headfirst into the water to catch them.

Pelicans are capable of holding a large amount of fish in their expandable pouches, which can stretch to accommodate several pounds of prey. Some species of pelicans, such as the brown pelican, have been observed diving from heights of up to 60 feet to catch fish.

They also eat some marine invertebrates

While fish are the mainstay of their diet, pelicans also consume a variety of marine invertebrates. These include crustaceans, such as crabs and shrimp, as well as mollusks like squid and octopus. Pelicans are opportunistic feeders and will take advantage of any available food source in their environment.

Their broad diet helps them survive and thrive in different habitats.

Pelicans as opportunistic feeders

Pelicans are known for their opportunistic feeding behavior. They are adaptable birds that will take advantage of any food source they come across. This can include scavenging from fishing boats, feeding on scraps from fish processing plants, or even stealing food from other birds.

While it is not their primary food source, pelicans have been observed eating other birds on rare occasions. These incidents usually occur when food resources are scarce or when an easy opportunity presents itself.

Pelican Feeding Behavior and Hunting Strategies

Pelicans are fascinating birds known for their unique feeding behavior and hunting strategies. They have developed various techniques to catch their prey, which predominantly consist of fish. However, do pelicans eat other birds? Let’s explore their feeding behavior in detail.

Cooperative hunting in groups

Pelicans are highly social birds and often engage in cooperative hunting. They form large groups, known as colonies or pods, and work together to increase their chances of capturing prey. This behavior is particularly common in Brown Pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) and Australian Pelicans (Pelecanus conspicillatus).

When hunting in groups, pelicans surround a school of fish and drive them towards shallower waters, making it easier to catch them. They use their wings to create a “net” formation, effectively trapping the fish within the group.

This cooperative hunting strategy allows pelicans to maximize their feeding efficiency and catch a larger quantity of prey.

Plunge diving to catch prey

Pelicans are well-known for their impressive plunge diving technique, which allows them to catch fish with great precision. They soar high above the water, scanning the surface for potential prey. Once they spot a target, they fold their wings back and dive headfirst into the water, reaching speeds of up to 40 miles per hour!

As they plunge into the water, pelicans use their long beaks to scoop up fish. Their beaks are equipped with a specialized hook-like structure at the end, which helps them secure their catch. Pelicans are capable of catching large fish due to their expandable pouches, which can accommodate a considerable amount of prey.

Pouch used as a dip net

The pouch of a pelican is a remarkable adaptation that aids their feeding process. After catching fish, pelicans raise their heads and let the water drain out from their pouches. They then swallow their prey whole.

Interestingly, pelicans not only use their pouches to catch fish but also as a dip net to scoop up smaller birds, crustaceans, and other aquatic creatures.

While pelicans primarily feed on fish, there have been rare cases where they have been observed preying on smaller birds, especially during times of scarcity. However, it is important to note that such instances are not common and do not represent their typical feeding behavior.

Pelicans are primarily piscivorous, meaning they primarily eat fish as their main source of sustenance.

Occasions When Pelicans May Eat Birds

Pelicans are known for their large bills and impressive fishing skills, but do they ever eat other birds? While their primary diet consists of fish, pelicans have been observed consuming birds on certain occasions.

Scavenging already dead birds

Pelicans are opportunistic feeders, and they will scavenge on already dead birds if the opportunity arises. This behavior is more commonly observed when food sources are scarce or when there is a large concentration of dead birds in a specific area.

Pelicans are equipped with a keen sense of smell, allowing them to detect the scent of decaying flesh from a considerable distance.

Eating chicks or eggs opportunistically

Pelicans are known to opportunistically consume the chicks or eggs of other bird species. This behavior is often observed in colonies where multiple bird species nest in close proximity. Pelicans, being large and powerful, can easily overpower smaller birds and raid their nests.

However, it is important to note that this behavior is not a regular part of their diet and is more of an opportunistic occurrence.

Kleptoparasitism – stealing prey from other birds

Pelicans are also known to engage in kleptoparasitism, which involves stealing prey from other birds. They have been observed snatching fish from the beaks of gulls, terns, and other smaller bird species. This behavior is often seen in areas where there is competition for food resources.

Pelicans, with their large beaks and agile flight, are able to outmaneuver and steal prey from other birds in mid-air.

It is important to understand that while pelicans may eat birds on occasion, it is not their primary source of food. Fish make up the majority of their diet, and they are highly specialized for catching and consuming aquatic prey.

The instances where pelicans consume birds are usually driven by scarcity of their primary food source or opportunistic behavior.

If you want to learn more about pelicans and their feeding habits, you can visit Audubon, a reputable website that provides detailed information on various bird species.

Species Most Likely to Eat Other Birds

Brown Pelicans

Brown pelicans are known to occasionally eat other birds. While their diet primarily consists of fish, they have been observed consuming smaller water birds such as terns and gulls. This behavior is more commonly seen in areas where there is a scarcity of fish or during times when other food sources are limited.

It is important to note that this behavior is not typical for brown pelicans and most of their diet consists of fish.

Peruvian Pelicans

Peruvian pelicans, like their brown counterparts, primarily feed on fish. However, they have also been observed eating other birds on rare occasions. This behavior is more commonly seen during breeding seasons when competition for food increases.

Peruvian pelicans have been known to snatch chicks from nesting colonies of other birds, such as cormorants and boobies, as a supplement to their diet. It is worth mentioning that these instances are relatively rare and do not make up a significant portion of their overall diet.

American White Pelicans

American white pelicans, unlike their brown and Peruvian counterparts, do not typically consume other birds. Their diet mainly consists of fish, and they are known for their unique fishing technique of cooperatively herding fish into shallow water.

These pelicans prefer to hunt in groups and use their large pouches to scoop up fish. While they may accidentally ingest small birds or eggs while feeding on fish, it is not a regular part of their diet.

It is important to remember that the occasional consumption of other birds by pelicans is not a common behavior for these species. Pelicans are primarily fish eaters and play an important role in maintaining the balance of aquatic ecosystems.

For more information on pelican behavior and diet, you can visit Audubon or All About Birds.

Interesting Facts About Pelicans

Their large throat pouch can hold up to 3 gallons of water

Pelicans are famous for their impressive throat pouches, which are designed to help them catch and consume fish in an efficient manner. These pouches can expand to hold up to 3 gallons of water, allowing the pelicans to scoop up large amounts of fish in a single dive.

This unique adaptation sets them apart from other birds and makes them highly skilled hunters.

They can live over 25 years in the wild

Pelicans have a relatively long lifespan, with some individuals living over 25 years in the wild. This is quite impressive considering the challenges they face in their natural environment, such as predation, competition for resources, and environmental factors.

Their ability to survive and thrive for such a long time is a testament to their adaptability and resilience.

They have a spine-tingling courtship ritual

Pelicans have a fascinating courtship ritual that is both mesmerizing and spine-tingling to witness. During this ritual, the male pelican will engage in a series of elaborate displays to attract a mate. This can include head bobbing, bill clapping, and even synchronized swimming.

The purpose of these displays is to demonstrate the male’s strength and suitability as a partner. It is truly a sight to behold!


To summarize, while pelicans are not naturally predators of other bird species, they are opportunistic and adaptable feeders. Under the right circumstances they may eat birds, but this does not form a major part of their diet.

Their fascinating hunting strategies and other interesting traits have long captivated bird watchers and nature enthusiasts alike.

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