• Skip to Content
  • Skip to Main Navigation
  • Skip to Local Navigation
  • Skip to Search
  • Skip to Sitemap
  • Skip to Footer
Help develop a Bird ID tool!

Brown Pelican

Pelecanus occidentalis ORDER: PELECANIFORMES FAMILY: PELECANIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Brown Pelican Photo

The Brown Pelican is a comically elegant bird with an oversized bill, sinuous neck, and big, dark body. Squadrons glide above the surf along southern and western coasts, rising and falling in a graceful echo of the waves. They feed by plunge-diving from high up, using the force of impact to stun small fish before scooping them up. They are fairly common today—an excellent example of a species’ recovery from pesticide pollution that once placed them at the brink of extinction.

Bird Festivals
Birds of North America Online

At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
39.4–53.9 in
100–137 cm
Wingspan
78.7 in
200 cm
Weight
70.5–176.4 oz
2000–5000 g
Relative Size
Huge. Slightly smaller than an American White Pelican; much larger than a Herring Gull.
Other Names
  • Grand gosier, Pélican brun (French)
  • Alcatraz, Pelícano café, Pelícano pardo (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • While the Brown Pelican is draining the water from its bill after a dive, gulls often try to steal the fish right out of its pouch—sometimes while perching on the pelican's head. Pelicans themselves are not above stealing fish, as they follow fishing boats and hang around piers for handouts.
  • Pelicans incubate their eggs with the skin of their feet, essentially standing on the eggs to keep them warm. In the mid-twentieth century the pesticide DDT caused pelicans to lay thinner eggs that cracked under the weight of incubating parents. After nearly disappearing from North America in the 1960s and 1970s, Brown Pelicans made a full comeback thanks to pesticide regulations.
  • The closely related Peruvian Pelican lives along the Pacific Coast of South America from southern Ecuador to Chile. It’s a little larger than a Brown Pelican, with fine white streaking on its underparts and a blue pouch in the breeding season. These two species are the only pelicans that plunge-dive for their food.
  • During a dive, the Brown Pelican tucks its head and rotates its body to the left. This maneuver is probably to cushion the trachea and esophagus—which are found on the right side of the neck—from the impact.
  • The oldest Brown Pelican on record was 43 years of age.

Habitat


Ocean

Brown Pelicans live year-round in estuaries and coastal marine habitats along both the east and west coasts. They breed between Maryland and Venezuela, and between southern California and southern Ecuador—often wandering farther north after breeding as far as British Columbia or New York. On the Atlantic and Gulf coasts they breed mostly on barrier islands, natural islands in estuaries, and islands made of refuse from dredging, but in Florida and southern Louisiana they primarily use mangrove islets. On the West Coast they breed on dry, rocky offshore islands. When not feeding or nesting, they rest on sandbars, pilings, jetties, breakwaters, mangrove islets, and offshore rocks.

Food


Fish

Brown Pelicans mostly eat small fish that form schools near the surface of the water—including menhaden, mullet, anchovies, herring, and sailfin mollies. A foraging pelican spots a fish from the air and dives head-first from as high as 65 feet over the ocean, tucking and twisting to the left to protect its trachea and esophagus from the impact. As it plunges into the water, its throat pouch expands to trap the fish, filling with up to 2.6 gallons of water. Pelicans usually feed above estuaries and shallow ocean waters within 12 miles of shore, but sometimes venture over the deeper waters past the narrow continental shelf of the Pacific coast. They occasionally feed by sitting on the surface and seizing prey with their bills, like other pelican species, usually when a dense school of fish is close to the surface and the water is too shallow and muddy to plunge. They also steal food from other seabirds, scavenge dead animals, and eat invertebrates such as prawns.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
2–4 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
2.6–3.4 in
6.7–8.6 cm
Egg Width
1.3–1.4 in
3.3–3.5 cm
Incubation Period
29–35 days
Nestling Period
77–84 days
Egg Description
Chalky white, becoming stained throughout incubation.
Condition at Hatching
Helpless, with bare pink skin and open eyes.
Nest Description

Ground nests range from depressions lined with grass to bulky structures of sticks, grass, and seaweed, while tree nests are usually well-built platforms of sticks lined with grass or leaves. The female builds the nest in 7–10 days as the male gathers progressively smaller sticks for her. She pushes sticks together with her bill and then forms a nest cup by pressing with her feet and body. The male brings new material for the female to add throughout incubation, and he may rearrange the nest while inside. Nests measure up to 30 inches across and 9 inches high on the outside, with an interior space up to 12 inches across and 4 inches deep.

Nest Placement

Tree

The male selects a site on the ground or in an exposed treetop and performs head-swaying displays to attract a female. Ground sites are often covered with dense vegetation or surrounded by low shrubs, but they have nearby perches and enough open space for parents to land, take off, preen and loaf when not on the nest. Pelicans occasionally nest on bare sand or shell. In tidal areas, experienced breeders choose higher sites to keep the nest safe from flooding.

Behavior


Aerial Dive

Though they have an awkward gait on land, Brown Pelicans are strong swimmers and masterful fliers. They fly to and from their fishing grounds in V-formations or lines just above the water’s surface. They and the closely related Peruvian Pelican are the only pelican species to perform spectacular head-first dives (typically ending in a huge splash visible from far away) to trap fish. Pelicans usually forage during the day, but may feed at night during a full moon. Before swallowing their prey they drain the water from their pouches, while gulls or terns often try to steal fish right out of their beaks. Highly social all year, pelicans breed in colonies of up to several thousand pairs—usually on small islands where they are free from terrestrial predators. The male defends a nest site and nearby perches for up to 3 weeks until he attracts a mate, and the pair is monogamous throughout the breeding season. The parents incubate their eggs with their feet. If disturbed suddenly they fly hastily, sometimes crushing their eggs. Pelicans regurgitate predigested fish onto the nest floor for their nestlings, later switching to whole fish once the young are big enough. The young can fly and fend for themselves after 3 months, but take 3–5 years of age to reach sexual maturity.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Brown Pelicans are a living symbol of how successful wildlife conservation can be. They nearly disappeared from North America between the late 1950s and early 1970s because of pesticides entering the food chain. The pesticide endrin killed pelicans outright, while DDT contamination led to thin-shelled eggs that broke under the weight of the parents. In 1970, Brown Pelicans were federally listed as endangered. The plight of pelicans and other species led to a ban on DDT in 1972 and a reduction in endrin use, allowing pelican numbers to rise. By 1985, numbers along the Atlantic and eastern Gulf coasts had recovered enough to delist those populations. Though the Brown Pelican is Louisiana’s state bird, they had to be reintroduced to that state in a program that lasted from 1968 to 1980. The species reached pre-pesticide numbers by the late 1990s and was fully delisted in 2009, less than a year before the Deepwater Horizon oil spill threatened Gulf Coast populations anew. Their populations continue their overall strong increases since the 1960s, though pelicans still face human-caused threats. Since they breed, roost, and forage near shipping channels, they are highly susceptible to oil spills. Disturbance from human activity in their coastal nesting habitats can cause problems, as panicked pelicans often abandon or accidentally destroy their nests. Hunting was a major cause of death in the early twentieth century, and people still hunt adults and collect eggs on Latin American and Caribbean coasts (and occasionally in the United States, though these birds are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act). Abandoned fishing line also threatens this species along with many marine animals. It has been estimated that more than 700 adult and immature pelicans die each year in Florida alone from entanglement in sport-fishing gear.

Credits

  • 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 Online, Ithaca, New York.
  • Harrison, P. 1985. Seabirds: An Identification Guide. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2009. Brown Pelican Pelecanus occidentalis. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Endangered Species Program, Arlington, Virginia [PDF].
  • USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. 2011. Longevity Records of North American Birds.

Range Map Help

Brown Pelican Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Resident to long-distance migrant. The seasonal movements of Brown Pelicans vary all across their range. Many Atlantic populations disperse northward in the summer after breeding and return southward in autumn, probably to follow concentrations of fish. Some Atlantic and Gulf coast populations migrate further south along the coast during the coldest months of the year. On the Pacific coast, pelicans leave the Gulf of California after breeding, cross the Baja peninsula, and migrate as far north as British Columbia, returning south to breeding areas by the next winter.

Find This Bird

To find Brown Pelicans, head to the southern coasts of the US (Atlantic, Gulf, or Pacific) and look for huge birds gliding low over the water—check nearby gulls and cormorants as a size reference. These birds plunge into the water to feed. The huge splashes they make can, from out of the corner of your eye, look like a whale’s spout. If you see a splash, look for the bird on the water’s surface as it drains water from its throat pouch, or scan for other pelicans circling around to dive in the same spot. If you can’t find pelicans over the water, head to a jetty, mudflat, or estuary to look for groups of them resting.

You Might Also Like

Do pelicans develop cateracts as a result of their diving behavior? Find out in our FAQ.