Brown Pelican

Pelecanus occidentalis

(c) Charles Bush
  • Pelicans
  • Pelecaniformes
  • Alcatra, Pelícano pardo, Pelícano café
  • Grand gosier, Pélican brun
Whether perched on a fishing pier or gliding above the sea, the conspicuous and popular Brown Pelican, with its large body, long bill, and enormous throat pouch, is unmistakable. Long wings gracefully carry foraging birds just above the water's surface; flocks often fly in synchronized single-file lines, slowly rising and falling in waves. Brown Pelicans are the only truly marine, dark-plumaged pelican species. The oldest known Brown Pelican lived 43 years.
(c) Charles Bush
Appearance Description
Brown Pelicans weigh about 8.2 pounds (3,740 grams), and measure 51 inches in length, with a huge wingspan of over 6.5 feet. Sexes look similar, though males are slightly larger, with short, dark legs, long, broad wings, a large, heavy all-brown body, white neck, pale yellow face; and a huge bill, paler at the base, and tipped with yellow. Webbing between all four toes makes the Brown Pelican an awkward walker, but a strong swimmer. The proximal end of the throat pouch brightens to red (western subspecies) or dark green (eastern subspecies) during breeding season. The necks of breeding adults also change to dark brown, with a white stripe along the side, and the head turns white during nesting.
Range Map
Courtesy Kenn Kaufman
Range Distribution
The Brown Pelican is a permanent resident of the coastal marine environment from central North America southward to northern South America. It breeds in scattered locations along the Atlantic coast from Maryland southward around Florida, and westward to southern Texas and Mexico; and on the Pacific Coast from southern California down to South America. The largest U.S. colony is on California's West Anacapa Island.
A legend for the range map to the right can be found here.
Brown Pelicans are found in shallow warm coastal marine and estuarine waters, particularly on sheltered bays. They are sometimes seen well out to sea, and rarely, on inland freshwater lakes. They typically nest on small estuarine or offshore islands, where they are safer from disturbance and predation.
Superb fishers, Brown Pelicans are noted for their spectacular head-first dives from as high as 60 feet, upon sighting prey. The bird surfaces with an unsuspecting fish trapped in its expandable pouch, tilts its bill down to drain out water, then tosses its head back to swallow. Prey includes menhaden, smelt, anchovies, and some crustaceans. Of the world's pelican species, only Brown Pelicans feed by plunge-diving. Pelicans sometimes become overly habituated, approaching fishermen for handouts.
Brown Pelicans are highly social year-round and breed in colonies of up to several thousand pairs. Pairs build nests on the ground, on cliffs, or in low trees like mangroves. Typically, males gather nesting materials and females build nests, which range from simple scrapes, to elaborate stick nests in trees. Two to four white eggs are incubated eggs under the parents' foot webs for nearly a month. Both parents feed their young predigested fish. By 3 to 4 weeks of age, the young begin obtaining whole fish by thrusting their bills into their parents' throats. At 5 weeks, ground nestlings begin gathering in groups. Three-month-old young begin to fly and fend for themselves, but parents continue to feed them. Birds reach sexual maturity at about 3 to 5 years of age.
Brown Pelicans are residents in much of their breeding range. After breeding, flocks move north along both Atlantic and Pacific coasts, to New England and British Columbia. They return southward to warmer waters to winter along both coasts, from central California and Virginia southward to South America. Small numbers of immature birds wander inland in summer, especially in the southwest.
  • 300,000
  • 288,950
  • increasing population, no conservation concerns
Population Status Trends
As recently as the early 1970s, Brown Pelicans were in jeopardy due to organochlorine pesticides. By 1970 all North American populations (with the exception of some in Florida) were gone; the species was placed on the Federal Endangered Species List throughout its range. Their growing abundance in the U.S. since the banning of DDT represents a conservation success story. The total U.S. population size now exceeds historical levels, the number of breeding pairs in most states is stable or increasing, and Christmas Bird Counts and Breeding Bird Survey data both show increases. The birds were removed from the Endangered Species List in the southeastern United States in 1985; however, endangered status has been retained throughout the remainder of its range.
Conservation Issues
Through the early 1900s, shooting for the millinery trade and to "protect" fishing caused major Brown Pelican declines. Legal protection began in 1903 when Pelican Island, Florida was set aside as a federal preserve. Despite the birds' longevity and popularity, Brown Pelicans nearly disappeared from North America between the 1950s and 1970s. The pesticide endrin killed pelicans outright, and DDT caused thin-shelled eggs that broke under the weight of incubating parents. DDT use was banned in the United States in 1972.
Despite their subsequent strong recovery, Brown Pelicans remain highly susceptible to oil spills. Breeding, roosting, and foraging sites are often near heavily trafficked shipping channels. Entanglement in fishing gear causes the deaths of 700 birds each year in Florida alone, where 80% of live birds examined show injuries from fishing gear. Pacific and Peruvian populations experience low productivity during periodic El Nino events, when warm surface water reduces prey availability.
Pelicans disturbed by gunshots from hunters, boat traffic, and visiting humans, including researchers, show greatly reduced reproductive success. Nestlings are crushed when parents flush in panic, and unattended eggs and nestlings succumb to predators and hyperthermia.
In the Carolinas, reduced nest numbers have resulted from the erosion of key nesting islands. Dredge spoil has been successfully used to rebuild some of these islands. Breeding populations were successfully re-established in Louisiana by transplanting nestlings from Florida. Other recovery plan recommendations include habitat protection, reduced disturbance, monitoring of contaminants and populations, and public education. Most U.S breeding sites are now protected by federal or state agencies or conservation groups, such as the National Audubon Society.
What You Can Do
Join beach cleanups in your area. Properly discarding of debris, particularly plastic, will prevent Brown Pelicans and other waterbirds from eating it.
Don't discard used oil into city sewers or municipal water supplies. It can end up in the ocean where Brown Pelicans rest and feed.
Dispose of monofilament lines, hooks, and fishing lures properly; Brown Pelicans can become entangled in this gear.
Don't disturb nesting Brown Pelicans when hiking or boating; prevent dogs and children from disturbing them. Brown Pelicans are very sensitive to disturbance near the nest.
For actions you can take, including Audubon activities, please visit our resources page.
More Information
Visit our resources page for more information about this species.
Natural History References
Shields, M. 2002. Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis). In The Birds of North America, No. 609 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.
Kaufman, Kenn. 1996. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York.
Sibley, David Allen. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, 2000
Conservation Status References
Shields, M. 2002. Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis). In The Birds of North America, No. 609 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.
Kaufman, Kenn. 1996. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York.
Sibley, David Allen. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, 2000