Brown PelicanPelecanus occidentalis

adult, breeding, Western
Adrian & Jane Binns/VIREO
adult, breeding, Eastern
Arthur Morris/VIREO
adult, breeding, Western
Arthur Morris/VIREO
adults, nonbreeding, Western
Arthur Morris/VIREO
immature, Western
Arthur Morris/VIREO
immature, Western
Brian K. Wheeler/VIREO
adult, breeding, Western
Arthur Morris/VIREO
adult, breeding, Western
Arthur Morris/VIREO

Family

Description

An unmistakable bird of coastal waters. Groups of Brown Pelicans fly low over the waves in single file, flapping and gliding in unison. Their feeding behavior is spectacular, as they plunge headlong into the water in pursuit of fish. The current abundance of this species in the United States represents a success story for conservationists, who succeeded in halting the use of DDT and other persistent pesticides here; as recently as the early 1970s, the Brown Pelican was seriously endangered.

Habitat

Salt bays, beaches, ocean. Mostly over shallow waters along immediate coast, especially on sheltered bays; sometimes seen well out to sea. Nests on islands, which may be either bare and rocky or covered with mangroves or other trees. Strays may appear on fresh water lakes inland.

Feeding Diet

Almost entirely fish. Types of fish known to be important in some areas include menhaden, smelt, anchovies. Also some crustaceans.

Feeding Behavior

Forages by diving from the air, from as high as 60' above water, plunging into water headfirst and coming to surface with fish in bill. Tilts bill down to drain water out of pouch, then tosses head back to swallow. Will scavenge at times and will become tame, approaching fishermen for handouts.

Nesting

Nests in colonies. Nest: Site is on ground or cliff of island, or on low trees such as mangroves. Nest (built by female, with material gathered by male) may be simple scrape in soil, heap of debris with depression at top, or large stick nest in tree. Eggs: 3, sometimes 2-4. White, becoming nest-stained. Incubation is by both sexes, roughly 28-30 days. Young: Both parents feed young. Young may leave ground nests after about 5 weeks and gather in groups, where returning parents apparently can recognize own offspring. Young may remain in tree nests longer (perhaps up to 9 weeks) before clambering about in branches. Age at first flight varies, reportedly 9-12 weeks or more. Adults continue to feed young for some time after they leave colony. 1 brood per year.

Eggs

3, sometimes 2-4. White, becoming nest-stained. Incubation is by both sexes, roughly 28-30 days. Young: Both parents feed young. Young may leave ground nests after about 5 weeks and gather in groups, where returning parents apparently can recognize own offspring. Young may remain in tree nests longer (perhaps up to 9 weeks) before clambering about in branches. Age at first flight varies, reportedly 9-12 weeks or more. Adults continue to feed young for some time after they leave colony. 1 brood per year.

Young

Both parents feed young. Young may leave ground nests after about 5 weeks and gather in groups, where returning parents apparently can recognize own offspring. Young may remain in tree nests longer (perhaps up to 9 weeks) before clambering about in branches. Age at first flight varies, reportedly 9-12 weeks or more. Adults continue to feed young for some time after they leave colony. 1 brood per year.

Conservation

Declined drastically in mid-20th century, as effects of pesticides caused eggshell thinning and failure of breeding. By 1970, all North American populations were essentially gone except some in Florida. Following the banning of DDT, Brown Pelicans made a strong recovery. They are now common and perhaps still increasing on the southeast and west coasts, although like many coastal birds, they are vulnerable to the effects of oil spills, climate change, and other manmade disasters.

Range

After breeding season, flocks move north along both Atlantic and Pacific coasts. These birds return southward to warmer waters by winter. Small numbers of immatures regularly wander inland in summer, especially in southwest.

Listen

colony sounds

Similar Species

breeding adult with breeding knot

American White Pelican

One of the largest birds in North America, with a 9-foot wingspan. Similar to Brown Pelican in shape but much larger, and very different in habits: Occurs far inland, feeds cooperatively in shallow lakes, does not dive from the air for fish. Despite its great size, a spectacular flier, with flocks often soaring very high in the air, ponderously wheeling and circling in unison.

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