The Pelican Diet: What Do They Eat?

Let’s explore the pelican’s palate! From death-defying dives that result in fishy feasts to a lesson in kleptoparasitism, discover what and how pelicans eat.

Nov 22, 2023By Natasha Elder
the pelican diet what do they eat

From their magnificent wingspan to their gigantic gular pouch, pelicans sure are fascinating creatures. But one of the most remarkable aspects of the life of a pelican is its interesting eating habits. What do pelicans eat? How do they catch their food? Do baby pelicans have different diets from their parents? The answers to all of these questions (and more) are revealed in this article.

Let’s dive right in.

Pelicans Mostly Eat Meat

american white pelican catching fish carp eating
Image credit: Flickr

Pelicans are carnivores, so their diet is entirely made up of meat. Because they live near water, fish understandably make up the bulk of the pelican’s diet. In particular, pelicans are known to enjoy herring, pigfish, minnows, carp, anchovies, sardines, and sheepshead fish. Yet, these birds are opportunistic feeders, so they will eat whatever is available.

Fish aside, pelicans eat other aquatic creatures. These critters can include crabs, shrimp, crayfish, turtles, frogs, tadpoles, insects, and lizards. Some pelicans will even eat other birds, like ducklings, pigeons, or seagulls – much to the horror of onlookers! All pelican species swallow their food whole. Their bills don’t have teeth.

Some Pelicans Plunge Dive for Dinner

brown pelican plunge diving
Image credit: Joshua J. Cotten on Unsplash

Different pelican species have different ways of hunting. Almost all the time, hunting is done from the surface. The pelican will look around for fish, spot some, and scoop them up – along with a large amount of water. But two species of pelican are divers: the brown pelican and the Peruvian pelican.

When these pelicans spot a possible meal while swimming or slowly flying just above the surface of the water, they get to work. Brown pelicans will fly high (sometimes up to 60 feet in the air!), circle for a bit, and then dive headfirst into the water like an arrow released from a bow. Peruvian pelicans do the same but from a much lower height.

As the pelican hits the surface, its pouched bill opens, and it scoops up its prey, which has been slightly stunned by the force of the impact. Other seabirds that plunge dive for food include gannets and tropicbirds.

What Do Baby Pelicans Eat?

brown pelican chicks nest
Image credit: X

Now that you know what mature pelicans eat, you might be wondering what pelican chicks eat. In the case of baby pelicans, they basically eat whatever their parents do. For the first seven days of their life, baby pelicans will eat the chewed-up version of their parents' food that they regurgitate onto the floor of their nest. Imagine a floor made up of fish goo – talk about disgusting animal dwellings.

After a week on Earth, pelican chicks are more independent. Their parents will catch food for them and, instead of eating and regurgitating the catch, temporarily store the live fish or aquatic animal in their pouch. The baby pelican will place their heads in their parents’ pouches and eat directly from there.

Essentially, this is how young pelicans learn to fish – by catching their food in their parents’ mouths. This act could see mama pelicans land on the list of best animal mothers.

What Happens if I Find Baby Pelican?

pelician with its chicks and nest
Image credit: Wikimedia

If you ever find a baby pelican, don’t try to feed it. No matter how hungry it appears to be (or how loud it squawks!), you should refrain from feeding it. Here’s what to do if you find a baby bird: leave it, put it back in its nest, or get it to an animal rehab or veterinarian.

Pelicans Steal Food from Other Birds!

pelician eating a fish on the beach
Image credit: Wikimedia

Nature can be a tough place at times. No animal likes to go hungry. Sometimes, when they’re unable to find a meal by themselves, animals have no choice but to steal food from another animal. In a way, it’s almost like they’re ordering takeout, but not paying for it. This behavior is known as kleptoparasitism. It’s a strategy that pelicans deploy on occasion.

Some pelican species are more prone to kleptoparasitism than other species. Take the Australian pelican, for example. This iconic Australian bird has been observed stealing food from cormorants on many occasions. An even worse example is the American white pelican, which is known to steal food from its fellow pelicans!

One thing to note is that although pelicans are known to steal food from other birds now and then, more often than not, they’re the victim of kleptoparasitism rather than the culprit. Other seabirds attempt to steal food from them. Terns and gulls will even steal food from inside a pelican’s beak!

Can Humans Feed Pelicans?

do not feed pelicans sign blackpool
Image credit: Geograph

While it may be tempting, and it’s admirable that you may want to, feeding pelicans is not recommended. Feeding wildlife, in general, is not a good idea. But pelicans in particular are super sensitive – though the way they snarf down anything that crosses their path may lead you to think otherwise! Feeding pelicans is so bad that it’s illegal in several states.

Humans should not feed pelicans because it goes against the animal’s nature. As predators, pelicans are biologically built to hunt and seek out food. When humans feed them, they become lazy and less likely to fish for themselves. This turns into reliance on humans, which results in them begging or scavenging on piers.

Pelicans Are Best Left to Themselves

white pelican spreading its wings
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Attracting a squadron of pelicans isn’t a good thing. Not only is it an annoyance to the fishermen who have to chase the birds away, but it’s also dangerous for the pelicans to be in such proximity to hooks and fishing lines. Plus, because pelicans are so big and – let’s be honest –can be aggressive animals, they’re not pleasant fishing companions for humans.

Interfering with their natural behavior aside, feeding pelicans can be harmful to their health. Other than the Australian pelican, which is one of many carrion-eating animals, pelicans must exclusively eat their fish fresh, whole, and with the bones intact. When a pelican eats dead fish, there is a risk of the carcass getting lodged in their throat and of exposed bones tearing through the skin of their pouch. Talk about spoiling their dinner!

Natasha Elder
By Natasha Elder

Natasha is a mother, a wife, a writer, and a serial cat owner. Though she is currently in mourning, her heart not ready for another feline family member just yet, she has always lived life with four paws beside her. She loves – you guessed it – cats, as well as creatures of the fluffy, scaly, and finned variety. Natasha longs to meet Sir David Attenborough one day and is passionate about responsible pet ownership