Pink-backed pelicans are widely dispersed throughout sub-Saharan Africa and frequent a variety of aquatic habitats such as lakes, dams, rivers, and lagoons. They prefer to feed in quiet areas where the water is shallow, vegetation is abundant, and fish are plentiful. They are always found near water and move in response to changing water conditions.
One of the smallest of the eight pelican species, pink-backed pelicans are social birds that roost together at night and nest together in small groups or in larger colonies of up to 500 pairs. They are active during the day and can be seen bathing and preening in the company of other pelicans as well.
When it comes to fishing, though, they prefer to go it alone. Pink-backed pelicans fish singly or in very small groups, usually in the morning and evening and sometimes by the light of the moon. Their hunting method is plunge-and-scoop. When a pink-backed pelican spots a fish, it retracts its head and neck onto its back and approaches its target slowly and steadily. With a sudden jab of the bill, the pelican plunges its head into the water and scoops sideways, taking fish and water into its large gular pouch (that well-known expandable throat pouch). The odds of a fish escaping, once trapped in a pelican’s pouch, are slim to none. The Pelican raises its bill towards the sky and instantly swallows the fish as water drains out of the pouch. And with that, breakfast is served (or lunch, or dinner).
Do pink-backed pelicans live up to their name? Do they really have pink backs? It’s more accurate to say pinkish. As these birds mature, their backs, bellies, and bills take on a pinkish tinge. They won’t ever be mistaken for flamingoes, though. In fact, they won’t ever be mistaken for any bird other than a pelican because of those signature pelican bills. All pelicans, including these, have long bills with gular pouches that can hold up to three gallons of water, which is roughly three times the capacity of the bird’s stomach. The pelican’s bill is a physical adaptation that allows for successful fishing and also comes in handy when feeding young. Adult pelicans can open their bills and throats wide enough for a chick to fit its entire neck and head inside! That makes for efficient feeding, as the parent pelican regurgitates semi-digested fish straight into its chick’s mouth.
Pink-backed pelicans breed year-round, and females in the same nesting colony tend to lay their eggs at about the same time. Pink-backed pelican pairs come together 10 days before the female lays her first egg and break up when breeding season is over. The female accepts her mate by accepting his nest-site. She sits in the nesting tree while he goes out and gathers all the materials to build a simple stick nest, maybe lined with seaweed or other soft material. With up to 500 pairs nesting together, things can get very crowded, and nests may end up touching each other. Nests, like pelican pairs, usually do not last beyond the breeding season.
Females lay two to three eggs per clutch and both parents share the job of incubating them for the next 30 days. They will take turns sitting on the eggs for as little as three hours or as much as three days. After about a month, the eggs hatch in the order in which they were laid. Once an egg starts to “chip,” it takes 24 hours for the chick to actually hatch out. Typically, only one chick survives because of sibling aggression within the first few days.
Parents brood their surviving chick closely and feed it up to 30 times per day for the first week. They cut back on brooding and feeding in the following weeks, but continue to care for their chick for 3-4 months. Pink-backed pelican chicks grow quickly and learn to fly after 10-12 weeks.
The most dangerous time in a pink-backed pelican’s life is right after hatching. Usually, two chicks hatch within two to three days of each other, but only one survives because the older will force the younger to the edge of the nest and attack it. The younger chick will die from wounds, starvation, or from falling out of the nest. Once on the ground, it is easy food for predators such as lions, leopards, hyenas, jackals, pythons, and possibly monitor lizards. Adult pink-backed pelicans are much less likely to be preyed upon because they can defend with their bills or fly away!
Pink-backed pelicans are widespread across an extremely large range. They are considered a species of “least concern” by the IUCN, the world’s leading conservation organization. However, in different parts of their range, pink-backed pelicans face threats such as habitat loss due to the draining of wetlands for cultivation, habitat disturbance due to ongoing human development in the area, or loss of nesting trees due to logging activity.
Brown, Urban, and Newman, The Birds of Africa, Volume I
Perrins, The Princeton Encyclopedia of Birds
Rutgers and Norris, Encyclopedia of Aviculture, Volume I