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Brown Pelican Life History


OceansBrown 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.Back to top


FishBrown 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.Back to top


Nest Placement

TreeThe 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.

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.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:2-4 eggs
Number of Broods:1 brood
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.
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Aerial Dive (water)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. Back to top


Low Concern

After precipitous declines, Brown Pelican populations stabilized thanks to conservation efforts, and populations have slowly increased between 1966 and 2019, according to the North American Bird Breeding Survey. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 370,000 and rates them 10 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating a species of low conservation 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. In the early twentieth century, hunting was a major cause of death and people still hunt adults and collect eggs on Latin American and Caribbean coasts (and occasionally in the United States, even though these birds are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act). Abandoned fishing line also threatens Brown Pelicans, 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.

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