When you spot a water bird flying in the sky, do you face difficulties in identifying whether it’s a heron, an egret, a stork, or a pelican? Well, you’re not the only one who struggles with it. All wading birds share multiple physical features and are certainly not easy to tell apart.
Pelicans and storks are two such birds. Although these birds belong to different orders, they are often confused with one another due to the similarity in their appearances and habitats. However, upon close examination, you will find that they have several significant differences as well.
The pelicans are significantly larger and heavier than the storks. Pelicans also possess a large gular pouch on their lower mandible, which is absent in the storks. Furthermore, pelicans have short, stout legs with fully webbed feet, while storks are long-legged birds that have partially webbed feet.
In this article, we will delve deeper into the appearance, diet, vocalization, and mating patterns of pelicans and storks and figure out what makes them different from each other.
Pelican vs. Stork: At a glance
Before we begin to compare the differences between pelicans and storks, let’s take a moment to acknowledge their similarities.
Both these birds are aquatic in nature, i.e., their habitat and diet revolve around water bodies and the creatures found in or around them. Moreover, they also possess a large, stocky body with a curved neck and long bills.
Now, take a look at this table given below that covers some quick differences between these birds:
|Family||Belong to the Pelecanidae family||Belong to the Ciconiidae family|
|Number of species||About eight species||About nineteen species|
|Genus||· Pelecanus||· Ciconia· Mycteria· Jabiru· Anastomus· Leptoptilos· Ephippiorhynchus|
|Length||Largest pelican species: 1.6-1.8 meters (5.3-6 feet)Smallest pelican species: 1-1.5 meters (3-3.5 feet)||Largest stork species: 152 centimeters (60 inches)Smallest stork species: 73 centimeters (29 inches)|
|Wingspan||Largest pelican species: 2.4-3.5 meters (8-11.6 feet)Smallest pelican species: 2-2.2 meters (6.8-7.6 feet)||Largest stork species: 3.7 meters (12 feet)Smallest stork species: 140 centimeters (55 inches)|
|Weight||Largest pelican species: 7-15 kilograms (16-33 pounds)Smallest pelican species: 2-5 kilograms (4.4-11 pounds)||Largest stork species: 9 kilograms (20 pounds)Smallest stork species: 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds)|
|Beak||Pelicans have long bills with a hooked tip and a gular pouch.||Storks have large bills that are shorter than the pelicans and lack the gular pouch.|
|Lifespan||Pelicans have been observed to live about 15-25 years in the wild.||Storks can live for 30 years in the wild on average, but have survived up to 39 years in captivity.|
|Diet||Pelicans are omnivores.||Storks are carnivores.|
|Eggs laid||1-3 eggs||2-5 eggs|
|Incubation period||29 to 36 days||33 to 35 days|
|Migration status||Both pelicans and storks are migratory birds that travel long distances during winters.|
Now that we have covered these differences, let’s look at each difference in a detailed manner.
Differences in families
The most significant difference between pelicans and storks is in their families. Scientists have classified pelicans as members of the Pelecanidae family, while the storks are classified as members of the Ciconiidae family.
There are about eight living pelican species under the Pelecanidae family, while the stork family consists of nineteen extant members, all of which have been listed below. We’ve also mentioned the population status of the species that don’t fall under the least-concerned list. Take a look:
Pelican species in the world:
- American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos Gmelin)
- Pink-backed Pelican (Pelecanus rufescens Gmelin)
- Dalmatian Pelican (Pelecanus crispus Bruch) – A near-threatened species
- Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis Linnaeus)
- Great White Pelican (Pelecanus onocrotalus Linnaeus)
- Spot-billed Pelican (Pelecanus philippensis) – A near-threatened species
- Australian Pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus Temminck)
- Peruvian Pelican (Pelecanus thagus Molina) – A near-threatened species
Stork species in the world:
- African Openbill Stork (Anastomus lamelligerus)
- Black Stork (Ciconia nigra)
- Maguari Stork (Ciconia maguari)
- Lesser Adjunct (Leptoptilos javanicus) – A vulnerable species
- Wood Stork (Mycteria americana)
- Yellow-Billed Stork (Mycteria ibis)
- Marabou Stork (Leptoptilos crumeniferus)
- Oriental Stork (Ciconia boyciana) – An endangered species
- Storm’s Stork (Ciconia stormi) – An endangered species
- White Stork (Ciconia ciconia)
- Woolly Stork (Ciconia episcopus) – A near-threatened species
- Asian Openbill Stork (Anastomus oscitans)
- Abdim’s Stork (Ciconia abdimii)
- Black-Necked Stork (Ephippiorhynchus asiaticus) – A near-threatened species
- Saddle-Billed Stork (Ephippiorhynchus senegalensis)
- Greater Adjutant (Leptoptilos dubius) – An endangered species
- Milky Stork (Mycteria cinerea) – An endangered species
- Painted Stork (Mycteria leucocephala) – A near-threatened species
- Jabiru Stork (Jabiru mycteria)
Differences in appearance
Since pelicans and storks are close relatives with several physical similarities, we’ll need to closely examine their anatomies in order to identify the points of differentiation. That is basically what we will do in this section.
We’ll begin by talking about a general physical description of these birds and then delve deeper into the features that can help you in distinguishing between them. Let’s get started.
What do pelicans look like?
Pelicans are large water birds that have long bills, with a gular pouch attached to their lower mandible, a tiny, flexible tongue, and a curving neck. Ranked among one of the heaviest flying birds, they possess long, broad wings and a short, square-tipped tail.
The legs of these birds are short, too, but are thick enough to support their bulky structure. The plumage color of these birds is generally white or grey, except for the darker species like Brown and Peruvian Pelicans.
What do storks look like?
Storks are large birds with stocky bodies that rest upon their thin, long legs. Although their bills are generally long, their exact structure in different species is determined by their individual diet (read more about it ahead).
The overall body structure of storks is quite similar to the herons; only the latter are generally lighter in weight. In terms of plumage coloration, you can see a significant diversity in the stork family, much more than that of the pelican family.
Major differences in appearances
Now that we’ve established a general idea of what both pelicans and storks look like, let’s compare their appearances on the following grounds and analyze how they’re different from one another:
Body shape and size
Are you wondering why pelicans’ and storks’ body shapes and sizes are the first ground of differentiation between these birds? Well, it is because the comparison between the size of these birds is the easiest way to differentiate between the two.
Pelicans are generally both substantially larger as well as heavier than storks. For instance, let’s compare the largest pelican species (Dalmatian Pelican) and the largest stork species (Marabou Stork) in terms of their size and body mass.
As mentioned in the table above as well, the overall length of Dalmatian Pelican ranges between 5.3-6 feet, while the maximum height Marabou Storks grow up to is 5 feet. In other words, the Pelicans are roughly one foot taller than the storks.
In terms of their body mass, the Dalmatian Pelicans can weigh up to 15 kilograms, while Marabou Storks’ weight ranges between 7-9 kilograms.
When you compare the smallest species of both families, you’ll find similar results. In other words, the pelicans have the upper hand on the storks in terms of both height and weight.
Both pelicans and storks are birds that are popular for their large bills. But when you compare these birds, which birds overshadow the others? Let’s find out.
When it comes to pelicans, all members of the family possess a similar-looking bill. Their bills are quite long, with a prominent hook at the tip of their upper mandible and a large, gular pouch attached to their lower mandible. This pouch is used to catch food (fish) and to store water.
As a general rule, the male pelicans possess longer bills than their female counterparts. The bills of some species are also known to change color during the breeding season; for example, Brown Pelicans’ bills turn bright red when they’re ready to mate.
Other species, like the American White Pelican, develop a knob on their upper mandible in their breeding months.
Now, coming to the storks’ bills, these birds also possess large bills. However, none of their species is known to possess a gular pouch. Moreover, the birds in the stork family display a significant variation in their bill size.
Among these birds, the structure of their bill is evolved to accommodate their diet. Let’s take a quick look at these variations:
Storks that belong to the Mycteria genus (Wooded and Painted Storks) have long, downcurved bills like the ibises, with a sensitive tip. This tip enables them to detect their prey even in clouded, murky waters.
The Jabirus and the Ephippiorhynchus storks have large bills that are slightly upturned. Both the openbill storks have bills that open in the middle, which helps them to feed on aquatic snails and freshwater mussels.
This distinction can be quite tricky since both pelicans and storks are waterbirds with characteristic long necks. Now, some of you would assume that since pelicans are overall larger birds, they should be the longer-necked ones as well. That’s where you’re wrong.
The length of a bird’s neck has very little to do with its overall body length. And when you compare the neck length of pelicans and storks, you will find that despite being overall smaller than the pelicans, storks possess longer necks than them.
Legs and feet
If any of you has seen a pelican in real life, you’ll know that these large birds have surprisingly short legs for an aquatic bird. This is true for all pelican species; all of them possess short but stout legs ending in fully webbed feet.
On the contrary, the storks are long-legged birds like most waders. Their legs are thin and long, contributing to their overall body length. However, these legs end in partially, and not fully, webbed feet.
When it comes to the sexual dimorphism displayed by the adults, you’ll notice that pelicans and storks are not all that different from one another.
Among the adult pelicans, the males are distinguished from their female counterparts based on their bills’ overall length and size. The males are not only the larger sex but also possess a longer bill.
Similarly, in the case of adult storks, it is noticed that the males are about 15% larger in size than the females. However, the sexual dimorphism in both these bird families is strictly limited to their size. When it comes to their plumage, both sexes are of the same color and appear alike.
Differences in vocalization
Apart from their appearances, there are other ways to distinguish between pelicans and storks as well. Among these birds, the pelicans are generally considered the noisier ones since the storks are so silent that they’re often considered “mute,” which is untrue.
One similarity between these birds is that the adults of both families are nearly silent in solitary but tend to vocalize more when they’re breeding or nesting in colonies.
The colonial sounds made by pelicans include low, aggressive grunts made within timely intervals, while there’s very little info about storks’ colonial calls. The nestlings of both families are known to produce a similar, loud, nasal sound.
Differences in habitat
In terms of habitat, pelicans and storks are quite similar and have a nearly cosmopolitan population, found in all parts of the world except for the poles. Both these birds are found abundantly in the warm, tropical areas and prefer to inhabit meadows, swamps, grasslands, riverbanks, and ditches.
However, you will rarely find a pelican or a stork in an area with dense trees because their primarily aquatic diet requires them to inhabit places with low vegetation and a water body nearby.
Differences in diet
As most of you can already tell, the diet of pelicans and storks is bound to have some similarities. It is because they’re both water birds that inhabit similar habitats and have access to the same food sources.
However, the one difference that sets these birds apart is the fact that pelicans are omnivores, while storks are strictly carnivores. Are you wondering how much can this fact impact their diet? This section will answer your question.
Now, let’s take a closer look at their diet:
What do pelicans eat?
As we just mentioned, the pelicans are omnivores. A large part of their diet comes from aquatic life. Although these birds prefer to feed on fish, you can also find them eating trout, amphibians, turtles, other birds, and aquatic plants occasionally.
What do storks eat?
We’ve already established that storks are carnivores. These birds have a diverse diet, including fish, reptiles, insects, other invertebrates, amphibians, and small mammals. Moreover, all stork genus has their own specialized diet according to which their bills have evolved.
- Storks of the Ciconia genus have a generalized diet, with the Abdim’s Stork being an exception. These storks will only feed on swarms of locusts.
- The primary diet of the Openbills consists largely of apple snails and other freshwater mollusks.
- Storks of the Mycteria genus specialize in eating aquatic vertebrates, particularly those that float in shallow waters.
Differences in mating & reproduction
Pelicans and storks have certain similarities and variances when it comes to mating and reproduction. In this section, we’ll look at the mating and reproductive behavior of these birds:
Pelicans: mating & reproduction
All pelican species are monogamous when it comes to breeding. In other words, they pair up with a mate and then stay with them for the rest of the breeding season.
The mating season of Pelicans
Pelicans are annual breeders. They arrive at their breeding ground around March or April and begin nesting in early April; nesting can extend up to June for some latecomers. They breed in large colonies, with up to 5,000 pairs per site.
In the nest-building process, the males bring nesting materials to the females. The females will then use these materials to construct a simple-structured nest.
Both sexes of pelicans perform pouch-rippling during courtship walks. However, only the males indulge in pouch-swinging, thrusting, throwing, and catching. The females also lead the males in courtship swims, just as they do in courtship walks.
The copulation of pelicans occurs at the nest site that has been decided prior to the courtship. Pelicans start mating right after pairing, which lasts for about 3 to 10 days on average.
What happens next?
All pelican species typically lay at least two eggs, with clutch sizes ranging from 1-3, and in some rare cases, up to six. Their eggs are large and oval-shaped; they’re white in color and have a coarse structure.
Both sexes incubate the eggs on top of or beneath their feet; you can only spot their eggs when they’re changing shifts.
The incubation period of pelicans’ eggs takes about 29-36 days, after which the eggs are laid. However, all but one nestling dies within the first few weeks due to sibling competition in the wild. Both parents feed their children for up to 25 days.
Storks: mating & reproduction
Just like the pelicans, the storks are also monogamous breeders that stay committed to their partners for one breeding season and then part their ways.
The mating season of Storks
Storks only breed once a year, in the spring months. Their breeding season begins between March and April. They’re colonial breeders that are often seen sharing colonies with other waterbird species as well.
The courtship customs of storks are particularly charming. Once a couple has chosen each other for mating, they push back their heads and then bring them forward slowly, with loud claps of their bills.
However, storks can come off as quite unromantic when it comes to feeding. Unlike most birds, they do not believe in sharing food or feeding their partners during courtships or while breeding. Their short courtship period is followed by copulation.
What happens next?
The average clutch size of the stork ranges between 2-5 eggs; all of their eggs are smooth-textured and oval in shape, although they can have a greyish or cream shade depending upon the parent species. After the female has laid eggs, they will incubate them for over 33-35 days until they hatch.
Following hatching, both parents take turns feeding their chicks. They place food for these hatchlings on the edge of their nest and feed them water by regurgitation.
Initially, the body of stork hatchlings is covered in short, sparse whitish downy feathers. It is only after three weeks that they start to develop flight feathers and scapulars.
Generally, the first hatchling of the storks has a competitive advantage over the others. During times of food scarcity, this behavior reduces brood size and, thus, increases the chances of sustenance for the residual nestlings.
Stork nestlings do not strike each other generally. Moreover, their parents’ feeding method (disgorging massive quantities of food at once) ensures that the stronger siblings cannot directly compete for food with weaker ones.
With this, we come to the end of our article. Today, we’ve learned not only about the differences between pelicans and storks but also about their similarities.
If you’re looking to tell them apart, you should start by analyzing their appearances; pelicans will be the larger ones among the two, possessing a large gular sac on their lower mandible that the storks lack. Moreover, pelicans are also short-legged birds that stand in stark contrast with the long legs of storks.
However, both these birds are more or less similar when it comes to their habitat and diet.