The great white pelican is a huge bird, with only the Dalmatian pelican
averaging larger amongst the pelicans. The wingspan can range from 226
to 360 cm (7.41 to 11.81 ft), with the latter measurement the largest
recorded among extant flying animals outside of the great albatrosses.
The total length of the great white pelican can range from 140 to
180 cm (55 to 71 in), with the enormous bill comprising 28.9 to 47.1 cm
(11.4 to 18.5 in) of that length. Adult males, weigh from 9 to 15 kg (20 to 33 lb), though large races from the Palaearctic are usually around 11 kg (24 lb) with few exceeding 13 kg (29 lb). Females are considerably less bulky and heavy, weighing from 5.4 to 9 kg (12 to 20 lb). Among standard measurements, the wing chord length is 60 to 73 cm (24 to 29 in), the tail is 16 to 21 cm (6.3 to 8.3 in) and the tarsus
is 13 to 14.9 cm (5.1 to 5.9 in). The standard measurements from
differing areas indicate that pelicans of the species from the Western Palaearctic are somewhat larger in size than ones that reside in Asia and in Africa.
Immature great white pelicans are grey and have dark flight feathers.
In flight, it is an elegant soaring bird, with the head held close to
and aligned with the body by a downward bend in the neck. In breeding
condition the male has pinkish skin on its face and the female has
It differs from the Dalmatian pelican by its pure white, rather than
greyish-white, plumage, a bare pink facial patch around the eye and
pinkish legs. Males are larger than females, and have a long beak that
grows in a downwards arc, as opposed to the shorter, straighter beak of
the female. The spot-billed pelican
of Asia is slightly smaller than the great white, with clear
brownish-grey plumage and a paler, duller-colored bill. Similarly, the pink-backed pelican is smaller with brownish-grey plumage, with a light pink to off-grey bill and a pinkish wash to the back.
The great white pelican is well adapted for aquatic
life. The short strong legs and webbed feet propel it in water and aid
the rather awkward takeoff from the water surface. Once aloft, the
long-winged pelicans are powerful fliers, however, and often travel in
spectacular V-formation groups.