Living Bird Magazine
Brown PelicanPelecanus occidentalis
- ORDER: Pelecaniformes
- FAMILY: Pelecanidae
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.More ID Info
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.
- Pelícano Pardo (Spanish)
- Pélican brun (French)
- 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.