Based on the oldest recorded pelican fossil found at Luberon in southeastern France belonging to the Early Oligocene era, it has been deduced that pelicans have existed virtually unchanged for at least thirty million years. Fossils of several birds from the Pelecanus species have been identified elsewhere in the world – South Australia; Siwalik Hills, India; Bavaria, Germany; Idaho, United States; Odessa, Ukraine; and North Carolina, United States – backing up this claim. Today there are eight living pelican species distributed around the world and some of which are considered ‘vulnerable’ or ‘threatened’ by the IUCN, and all of which use their amazingly elastic pouches to catch fish.
With the exception of the brown pelican, which dives for fish and snatches it up in its bill, pelicans usually form cooperative groups for their fishing expeditions. They either swim along in a line or U-shape formation, beating their wings on the surface of the water to drive the fish into a group in the shallows where the pelicans scoop them up in their pouches. Contrary to popular belief, pelicans do not store fish in their pouches, but swallow them almost immediately upon catching them. Baby pelicans feed by retrieving fish from the throats of their parents.
Pelicans are very social birds, traveling in flocks and breeding in colonies, either along the coastline or inland alongside rivers and lakes. The brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) was at one time considered to be ‘vulnerable’ in North America – primarily due to poisoning by chemical pesticides such as the notorious DDT which devastated the populations of many seabirds – but recent reports indicate that significant recovery has taken place and the birds’ conservation status is now that of ‘least concern’.
The Dalmation pelican (Pelecanus crispus), found in South-eastern Europe through to India and China, has the IUCN conservation status of ‘vulnerable’, while the Peruvian pelican (Pelecanus thagus) found on the Pacific Coast of South America, and the spot-billed pelican (Pelecanus philippensis) found in Southern Asia, are both considered to be ‘near threatened’. The other pelican species – pink-backed pelican (Pelecanus rufescens) found in Africa, Seychelles and southwestern Arabia; the American white pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) found in North America; the great white pelican (Pelecanus onocrotalus) found in the eastern Mediterranean, Malay Peninsula and South Africa; and the Australian pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus) found in Australia, New Guinea, New Zealand, Bismarck Archipelago, Fiji and Walacea are all listed as being of ‘least concern’ from a conservation standpoint.