Why Do Pelicans Fly in Circles?

Pelicans, with their long bills and large throat pouches, are an exciting study for bird lovers and ornithologists worldwide. Their fascinating behaviors, particularly their peculiar flying patterns, often catch our attention. One of these intriguing habits is their tendency to fly in circles, a practice that many have observed but few understand.

Pelicans fly in circles mainly to ride thermal air currents that propel them to higher altitudes with minimal effort. This efficient approach to flight allows them to conserve energy, essential for these large birds that often travel long distances in search of food.

But, why exactly do they use this approach? And are there other reasons behind this curious behavior? Stay with me, and let’s unravel the mysteries of the circular flight of pelicans, a spectacle that’s as intriguing to the curious observer as it is vital to the pelicans themselves.

Understanding Pelicans: An Overview

Species and Habitats of Pelicans

Pelicans are part of the family Pelecanidae and are among the largest flying birds. They inhabit regions across the globe, with species ranging from the Great White Pelican to the American Brown Pelican. Diverse in their habitats, pelicans are found everywhere from freshwater lakes to coastal areas, exhibiting behaviors specific to their unique environments.

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Unique Features of Pelicans

Pelicans are known for their distinctive features, such as their long bills with a stretchy throat pouch and large, strong wings. These physical characteristics play a significant role in their feeding and flying behaviors, shaping their unique place in the avian world.

Pelican Flying Behavior

General Flying Patterns of Pelicans

Pelicans are adept fliers. They often fly in formations – sometimes in lines, other times in V shapes, and notably, in circles. This circular pattern is particularly mesmerizing, appearing as though they’re caught in an invisible whirlwind.

Explanation: Why Do Pelicans Fly in Groups?

Flying in groups allows pelicans to take advantage of the ‘upwash,’ the upward movement of air caused by a leading bird’s wingtip vortices. This allows following birds to save energy during flight, a principle also used by migrating geese.

Unraveling the Mystery: Why Do Pelicans Fly in Circles?

Understanding Thermals

Before we delve into why pelicans fly in circles, it’s important to understand what thermals are. Thermals are columns of rising air created by the heating of the Earth’s surface by sunlight. They rise into the sky and can reach quite high altitudes.

Thermals and Pelican Flight

Pelicans are masters at using these thermals to their advantage. When they locate a thermal, they circle within it. As the thermal rises, so do they, gaining altitude without needing to expend energy by flapping their wings.

How Do Thermals Help Pelicans Fly in Circles?

Once a pelican has entered a thermal, it begins flying in a circular pattern. The thermal, being a column of air, acts as an invisible boundary that the pelican circles within. The circular pattern is a consequence of the pelican trying to stay within the thermal. They effectively ride this “elevator” of air upward, gaining altitude with minimal effort.

Role of Circular Flight in Energy Conservation

By using thermals and flying in circles, pelicans can conserve their energy. This is especially critical on long flights or during migrations, where energy efficiency becomes crucial for survival. The pelican’s circular flight, therefore, isn’t just a fascinating spectacle—it’s a strategy for survival.

Benefits of Circular Flight to Pelicans

Energy Conservation in Flight

The most significant advantage of using thermals is energy conservation. By soaring on thermals, pelicans can travel great distances without exhausting themselves. This is particularly crucial during long-distance migrations or in locations where food sources are spread out.

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Searching and Spoting Prey from High Altitudes

When a pelican rides a thermal to a higher altitude, it gets a bird’s-eye view of the area below. From this vantage point, they can spot potential prey or identify productive fishing areas. When they spot a promising location, they can exit the thermal and glide down to it, again conserving energy by not needing to actively fly.

Safety from Predators

Another advantage of high-altitude flight is safety from predators. By soaring high in the sky, pelicans can avoid many predators that could pose a threat at lower altitudes. It also allows them to survey the landscape for potential dangers before deciding where to land.

Other Birds Exhibiting Similar Flying Patterns

Birds of Prey and Thermals

Pelicans aren’t the only birds that use thermals for soaring. Many birds of prey, like eagles, hawks, and vultures, also utilize thermals to gain altitude. They use the same strategy—enter a thermal, fly in a circle to gain altitude, and then glide to their destination, conserving energy all the while.

Comparison with Pelican Flight

While the basic strategy of using thermals is the same, different bird species may have different specific behaviors. For instance, some birds of prey use thermals not just for traveling, but also for hunting. From high altitudes, they can spot and swoop down on their prey, catching them by surprise.

Unique Aspects of Pelican Soaring

What makes pelicans unique is their combination of thermal soaring with group flight. By flying in formations and using thermals, they optimize their energy usage, ensuring they have the stamina for their long foraging flights and migrations. This combination of behaviors showcases the incredible adaptations birds have evolved for survival.

Debunking Misconceptions about Pelican’s Circular Flight

Pelicans Aren’t Just “Playing”

One common misconception about pelicans (and birds in general) flying in circles is that they’re just “playing” or “having fun.” However, the reality is that these behaviors are primarily driven by survival necessities. The energy conservation enabled by thermal soaring is vital for their long flights in search of food and during migrations.

Not All Circular Flights are for Soaring

Another misconception is associating all circular flight with thermal soaring. While thermals are a primary reason, there may be other causes too. For example, birds also circle while searching for prey or when preparing to land. It’s important to consider the context of the behavior.

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How Can Observing Pelican Flight Benefit Us?

Lessons from Nature: Insights from Pelican Flight

Pelicans’ efficient use of thermals and flight formations has inspired scientists and engineers in various fields. In aviation, understanding these natural phenomena can help design more efficient aircraft and flight patterns.

Applications in Aviation and Gliding

For instance, glider pilots often use thermals to stay aloft, much like pelicans do. By better understanding how pelicans locate and utilize thermals, we can improve how gliders are flown. Similarly, studying pelican flight formations could lead to improvements in how aircraft are arranged in flight, potentially leading to energy savings.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Do all birds fly in circles?

Not all birds fly in circles. This behavior is commonly observed in larger birds like pelicans, hawks, and vultures that utilize thermals for soaring. Small birds, on the other hand, do not typically exhibit this behavior as their flight dynamics differ significantly from those of larger birds.

2. Are there other reasons why birds might fly in circles?

Yes, besides thermal soaring, birds might fly in circles for other reasons. Some birds circle over prey before diving in for a catch, while others might do it as part of courtship rituals or territorial displays.

3. How do pelicans know where to find thermals?

Pelicans, like other soaring birds, have evolved to recognize the signs of thermals. This might include watching other birds, noticing certain cloud formations, and sensing changes in wind direction and temperature.


From their broad wings and long bills to their peculiar habit of flying in circles, pelicans have fascinated birdwatchers and scientists alike. The act of flying in circles, often misconstrued as playful behavior, is actually an energy-conserving strategy – a testament to the pelican’s survival skills.

Through this behavior, pelicans showcase how nature’s design is often the most efficient. They exploit natural phenomena like thermals and upwash from other birds in a group, turning these into survival strategies. These fascinating behaviors continue to inspire not just in the realm of natural history, but also in fields as diverse as aviation and engineering.

As we observe and appreciate the grace of pelicans riding the thermals, spiraling effortlessly into the sky, we also marvel at nature’s ingenuity. Each circular flight, each graceful rise and descent, represents survival, adaptation, and the eternal quest for efficiency in the natural world.

1 thought on “Why Do Pelicans Fly in Circles?”

  1. Imo the pelicans fly up in the wind drafts on occasion because they need to stay in physical condition for the migration back to the south in the fall. If they just floated on the lake all summer they’d be out of shape blobs. That is all they do most their time is raise their babies and eat in the lake surface. They take flying breaks to keep in physical condition for migration time.


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