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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.

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Keys to identification Help

Gull-like
Gull-like
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Brown Pelicans are huge, stocky seabirds. They have thin necks and very long bills with a stretchy throat pouch used for capturing fish. Their wings are very long and broad and are often noticeably bowed when the birds are gliding.

  • Color Pattern

    Adult Brown Pelicans are gray-brown birds with yellow heads and white necks. In breeding plumage, the back and sides of the neck turn a rich, dark reddish-brown. Immatures are gray-brown above (including the head and neck) with pale whitish belly and breast.

  • Behavior

    Brown Pelicans feed by plunging into the water, stunning small fish with the impact of their large bodies and scooping them up in their expandable throat pouches. When not foraging, pelicans stand around fishing docks, jetties, and beaches or cruise the shoreline. In flight, lines of pelicans glide on their broad wings, often surfing updrafts along wave faces or cliffs. Their wingbeats are slow, deep, and powerful.

  • Habitat

    Brown Pelicans live along southern and western sea coasts and are rarely seen inland (except at the Salton Sea in California, where they are regular in large numbers). They nest in colonies, often on isolated islands free of land predators.

Range Map Help

Brown Pelican Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Adult breeding Pacific

    Brown Pelican

    Adult breeding Pacific
    • Bright red throat pouch
    • White head tinged with yellow
    • Dark nape
    • Slaty gray body with darker belly
    • © Chuq Von Rospach, Dana Point, California, December 2007
  • Adult breeding Atlantic

    Brown Pelican

    Adult breeding Atlantic
    • Mostly gray body, darker on belly
    • White crown
    • Rich, dark brown nape and neck
    • © Susan E. Newman, Marathon, Florida, December 2011
  • Adult nonbreeding Atlantic

    Brown Pelican

    Adult nonbreeding Atlantic
    • White head and neck
    • Gray back and wings, dark brown belly
    • Long pale bill, dark brown throat pouch
    • © birdsandwater, Wilmington, North Carolina, December 2008
  • Adult nonbreeding Pacific

    Brown Pelican

    Adult nonbreeding Pacific
    • Plunge dives into the water to catch fish
    • Darker belly contrasts with paler gray upperparts and wings
    • © Elaine Cundiff, Loreto, Baja California, Mexico, February 2010
  • Juvenile Atlantic

    Brown Pelican

    Juvenile Atlantic
    • Dull gray-brown overall
    • White belly
    • Dull yellow-gray bill
    • © Susan E. Newman, Marathon, Florida, December 2011
  • Juvenile Pacific

    Brown Pelican

    Juvenile Pacific
    • Dark brown overall
    • Bill and throat pouch pale pinkish gray (Atlantic juvenile has darker pouch)
    • © Kevin T. Karlson
  • Adult breeding Atlantic

    Brown Pelican

    Adult breeding Atlantic
    • Dark brown neck and nape
    • White head, yellowish face
    • Very long, pale bill with dark throat pouch
    • © bird_dog57, Florida, September 2008
  • Adults nonbreeding Pacific

    Brown Pelican

    Adults nonbreeding Pacific
    • Long, pale bill, dark throat pouch
    • White head and neck, dark gray-brown belly
    • Long, somewhat ragged looking wings
    • Mottled gray back and wings
    • © birdmandea, Westhaven, Washington, October 2008
  • Juvenile Atlantic

    Brown Pelican

    Juvenile Atlantic
    • Mostly dark brown with white on belly and underwings
    • Bill and throat pouch dark gray
    • © Gary Tyson, Cocoa Beach, Florida, June 2010
  • Adult breeding Atlantic with chicks

    Brown Pelican

    Adult breeding Atlantic with chicks
    • Chicks solid downy white with pale bills and throat pouches
    • © Michael Fannon, Smith Island, Maryland, August 2009

Similar Species

  • Adult Brown Pelican and Adult American White Pelican

    American White Pelican

    Adult Brown Pelican and Adult American White Pelican
    • American White Pelican is similar in shape to Brown Pelican, but much larger
    • American White Pelican has solid white body with black wing-tips, and orange bill and throat pouch
    • © lee.karney2, Florida, April 2006
  • Juvenile

    Double-crested Cormorant

    Juvenile
    • Easily distinguishable from juvenile Brown Pelican
    • Long neck, and short, yellow, hooked bill
    • Longer tail
    • Body mostly black
    • © Byard Miller, Pascagoula, Mississippi, November 2007

Similar Species

American White Pelicans are even larger than Brown Pelicans; they are bright white with sharply contrasting black wingtips. They tend to soar high in the sky. If you see a pelican inland it is much more likely to be an American White Pelican than a Brown Pelican. Cormorants such as the Double-crested Cormorant are much smaller, darker birds with longer necks and smaller bills than pelicans. Brown Pelicans occasionally venture offshore, where on the Pacific Coast they may overlap with Black-footed Albatrosses. These albatrosses are mostly sooty brown with a shorter neck and bill than pelicans. They have longer, much thinner wings and they flap very sparingly. Albatrosses usually stay well offshore and are only rarely seen from land.

Regional Differences

On the Pacific Coast, Brown Pelican adults have red skin on their throats in the breeding season. On the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, Brown Pelicans are slightly smaller and their throat skin is greenish black.

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.

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