Globally, pelican populations have decreased, with three species being of conservation concern. Australian pelicans (Pelecanus conspicillatus) are not regarded as endangered, but have declined across south-eastern Australia. Information on their movements and causes of mortality are required to interpret the importance of these regional declines to the species' global population. We explored patterns of movement and causes of mortality by analysing recoveries from 14615 Australian pelicans banded over 37 years between 1969 and 2006. Data from 243 leg band recoveries showed that Australian pelicans move distances of up to 3206km, and travel across the species' entire geographic range, within a year of fledging. We found little evidence for the popular notion that these birds move en masse from the coast to inland areas in response to flooding rains. Maximum recorded age of a banded Australian pelican was 15 years. The banding data suggest that the regional pelican declines could reflect long-distance movements rather than an overall population response. However, a concentration of band returns from south-eastern Australia where the declines have been recorded, and the high incidence of human-induced deaths (16.4%) suggest otherwise. Accurate assessment of population trends in long-lived, long-distance nomads such as Australian pelicans requires assessment at a continental scale. Our results emphasise the importance of knowledge about fundamental aspects of a species' biology for accurate interpretation of regional population declines.