While seven or eight species of pelican exist around the world, they all have a few key things in common—notably their preferred habitat. Most pelicans live in a certain type of environment, in large part because of their other universal trait: their bills. A pelican's bill is integral to his hunting, and it encourages him to live in areas where he can put it to good use.
Different species of pelican are found in Australia, Europe, Asia, North America and Africa, generally favoring warmer climates close to water. This doesn't only mean the ocean, though—they also live near lakes and rivers. In North America, chemical pesticides that poisoned pelicans and their eggs once left the bird endangered. According to the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, however, the population has made a significant improvement, and even recovered completely on the East Coast.
Pelicans don't just prefer living near water—they demand it. These birds typically live no more than 20 miles or so from a major body of water. This is because they are carnivorous animals that feed almost exclusively on marine life, particularly fish. Coastal pelicans build their nests near the shore and also on small islands, while inland pelicans prefer forests and mangroves.
A pelican's motivation for living near the water is the abundance of food. He boasts a uniquely elastic pouch in the bottom of his bill, which is integral to his hunting process. When the pelican swoops down over the water, he scoops up water and fish in his bill. The bill pouch expands, and he carries the water and fish until he lands. When he does, he drains the water from his bill and swallows the fish whole.
When pelicans breed, they do so in areas where predators will not be able to get to them or their eggs. In some cases this means constructing makeshift nests in trees, while other pelicans seek out islands without predators so they can safely breed on the ground. Each mating season, pelicans are monogamous, and share the duties of nest-building and caring for their young.
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Tom Ryan is a freelance writer, editor and English tutor. He graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in English writing, and has also worked as an arts and entertainment reporter with "The Pitt News" and a public relations and advertising copywriter with the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.