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Pelicans and Other Fishing Birds: Pelecaniformes

Physical Characteristics

The birds in the Pelecaniformes group are mostly seabirds, and they are some of the most easily recognized birds in the world. All of the birds in the five families have webbing that connects all four toes, although the frigatebirds (FRIGG-it-birdz) have very small webs. The largest birds in the group are the pelicans. The biggest pelicans weigh as much as 33 pounds (15 kilograms). The smallest birds are tropicbirds. Some of them weigh only 10.5 ounces (300 grams).

Many of the birds in this group have interesting bills. Everyone knows the pelicans with their enormous pouches. The Australian pelican has the largest bill of any bird—it is 20 inches (50 centimeters) long. Most of the other birds in the Pelecaniformes group have bills with serrated edges like the blade of a bread knife. These edges help the birds hold slimy fish. Almost all of the bills have a hook on the end. The hooks help tear apart the birds' prey. The anhingas (an-HING-guz) are the only exception. They have sharp, pointy bills that are less than 4 inches (10 centimeters) long.

All of these birds, except for the tropicbirds, have a bare skin pouch or throat sac. The pouches can be fluttered to help cool the birds. The pelicans' fish-catching pouches are the biggest ones. But when male frigatebirds are courting, they can blow up their pouches to look like big red balloons. The birds in this group also have air sacs under the skin that help cushion them when they plunge into the water.

The feathers of the birds in the Pelecaniformes order are not very colorful. Most of them are black, brown, or white. The birds in the cormorant family are unusual because their feathers are not waterproof and can get soaking wet. After swimming, the birds have to spread their wings to dry them in the sun. Although the birds in this group lack bright feathers, other parts of their bodies are surprisingly colorful. The eyes of some pelicans and cormorants are bright green or blue. Many of the birds have yellow, orange, blue, and red throat patches, feet, and bills. Some of the bare parts of the birds turn colorful just during breeding season.

Additional topics

Animal Life ResourceBirdsPelicans and Other Fishing Birds: Pelecaniformes - Physical Characteristics, Diet, Behavior And Reproduction, Pelecaniformes And People, Conservation Status - GEOGRAPHIC RANGE, HABITAT