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Do Pelicans Eat Birds?

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When you think of a pelican’s diet, you probably think of fish, amphibians, and crustaceans.

But it turns out these carnivorous birds might also feed on some of their fellow members of the Aves class.

Do pelicans eat birds? Yes, they do.

pelican landing from a short flight

Besides their usual diet of fish, crustaceans, insects, and amphibians, pelicans may also eat birds. They have been known to eat birds like pigeons and seagulls.

But from all indications, pelicans can eat many other birds as long as they fit in the pelicans’ mouths.

If you think eating birds is the only odd thing about a pelican’s diet, you are in for even more surprising details.

In this article, we discuss how pelicans swallow birds and verify if they eat humans. We also mention other odd things they eat.

Do Pelicans Eat Birds?

Pelicans usually eat fish exclusively. But sometimes, they become opportunistic feeders and prey on other animals.

Some of those animals include frogs, lobsters, turtles, lizards, insects, and even birds. So, yes, pelicans eat birds.

Pelicans eat birds like pigeons, seagulls, ducks, common murres, cape gannets, Peruvian petrels, silver gulls, grey gulls, and even their own kind.

They typically go after small birds and chicks. But they are not limited to only those types of birds. For pelicans, as long as the prey can fit in their mouth, they will eat it.

pelican eating a piece of fish on water

As we mentioned above, pelicans can also be cannibalistic. Pelican species such as the brown, Australian, and Peruvian have been observed to prey on chicks of their own species.

Do They Swallow Them Alive?

Yes, pelicans swallow the birds alive.

Pelicans swallow their prey – including birds – whole. Although the prey bird might struggle a bit, it gets guzzled almost immediately.

In some cases, the pelicans may not totally digest their prey. Instead, they will fly with the captured animal in their crop.

Then when they get to their chicks, they regurgitate the partially digested bird. The pelican chicks, in turn, reach into their parents’ gullet to retrieve the regurgitated animal and feed on it.

How Does a Pelican Digest Birds?

After capturing a bird with their bill, pelicans swallow the prey almost immediately.

The consumed animal then travels through the esophagus to the stomach. Although, in some cases, the swallowed bird may be stored in the crop.

The pelican stomach is made up of two parts: the proventriculus and the gizzard. When the swallowed prey gets into the stomach, it reaches the proventriculus first.

The proventriculus, which may also be called the glandular stomach, is where digestion begins.

In the proventriculus, various digestive juices are produced. Some of these juices include hydrochloric acid (HCl) and pepsin.

Hydrochloric acid and pepsin combine to digest the proteinous parts of the digested bird. While HCl sets the pH for pepsin activity, pepsin itself initiates the enzymatic actions.

After the consumed bird has been soaked in digestive juices, it moves to the gizzard. The gizzard initiates mastication in birds since they do not have teeth.

great white pelican flying close to the waters near a port

The gizzard is a very muscular structure, so it grinds and crushes the prey into smaller bits. By masticating the consumed prey, the gizzard increases its surface area, making digestion easier.

In pelicans and other birds of prey, the gizzard also serves as a place where indigestible parts of the consumed animal are stored.

Bones, hairs, and other similar items are collected here and fashioned into a bolus. Then the bolus is later removed from the pelican’s body.

Birds of prey, like pelicans, typically swallow their prey whole. So, they take in both digestible and indigestible parts.

If these indigestible parts are not collected in the gizzard, they can damage soft organs in the pelican’s body.

Can a Pelican Eat a Seagull?

Yes, a pelican can eat a seagull, and from all indications, it is not a rare occurrence.

Seagulls are known to stand atop a pelican’s head, waiting to steal food from the pelican’s mouth.

Seagulls are thought to be enterprising for this act. But sometimes, pelicans are equally resourceful, and they just might eat the supposedly quick-witted seagull.

Of course, this doesn’t always happen. As we hinted before, pelicans typically feed on birds when they become opportunistic.

Pelicans typically turn to opportunism when starved or stressed.

focused shot of a pelican catching a small fish

21 Odd Things Pelicans Will Eat

Here is a list of some of the odd things pelicans will eat:

  • Pigeons
  • Crabs
  • Lobsters
  • Cats
  • Ducks
  • Chicks of their own species
  • Turtles
  • Lizards
  • Frogs
  • African Penguins
  • Silver Gulls
  • Grey Gulls
  • Kelp Gulls
  • Common Murre Chicks
  • Cattle Egret Chicks
  • Cattle Egret Eggs
  • Cape Gannets
  • Crowned Cormorants
  • Peruvian Diving Petrels
  • Seagulls
  • Greater Crested Terns

Do Pelicans Eat Humans?

Pelicans do pose some threat to humans. However, our search did not show any record of them eating humans.

Besides, an adult human is way too big for a pelican to swallow. So, it is pretty much impossible to eat a live adult human.

Now, we might not be able to rule out the possibility of a pelican swallowing a human baby. There are instances of pelicans trying to consume cats about the size of a human baby.

a woman covering her face near a pelican

Nonetheless, it is improbable for a pelican to come across an unsupervised baby. So, all in all, pelicans eating humans is extremely unlikely to happen.

Final Take

Pelicans eat birds, especially when they are unable to get their usual diet.

They typically eat smaller birds like pigeons and seagulls. But they can eat any other bird that can fit in their bill.

Interestingly, bird consumption in pelicans is not limited to other species; they sometimes feed on chicks of their own species.


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