Brown Pelican

Brown Pelican

The brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) is one of three species of the pelican family, Pelecanidae, found in the America and one of two species that feed by diving into the water.

It is found from New Jersey to the mouth of the Amazon River on the Atlantic Coast and from British Columbia to northern Chile, including the Galapagos Islands, along the Pacific Coast.

In its breeding plumage, the nominated subspecies has a white head with a yellowish wash on the crown. There is dark maroon-brown on the nape and collar.

There are white lines on the upper sides of the neck at the base of the gular pouch, and a pale yellowish patch is on the lower fore-neck. The male and female are equal, although the female is much smaller.

There are a white head and neck on the nonbreeding male. In the nonbreeding season, the pink skin around the eyes becomes dull and grey.

The pouch is heavily olive ochre-tinted, and the legs are olive-grey to blackish-grey, and it lacks any red hue.

Table of Contents

Scientific classification

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Aves
  • Order: Pelecaniformes
  • Family: Pelecanidae
  • Genus: Pelecanus
  • Species: Pelecanus Occidental

Brown pelicans feed mostly on fish, but also eat amphibians, crustaceans and birds’ eggs and nestlings.

In secluded areas, mostly on islands, it nests in colonies, vegetated land among sand dunes, thickets of shrubs and trees and mangroves. Females lay two or three oval, white, chalky eggs.

With both sexes sharing duties, incubation takes 28 to 30 days. Within 4 to 14 days, the newly hatched chicks are pink, turning grey or black.

Chicks need about 63 days to escape. The juveniles leave the nest six to 9 weeks after hatching and assemble into groups called pods.

The brown pelican is the national bird of the islands of Saint Martin, Barbados, Saint Kitts and Nevis, and the islands of Turks and Caicos, and the official state bird of the islands of Louisiana, which appears on each of the flags, seals, or coats of arms.

It has been classified by the International Union for Nature Conservation as a species of least concern.

As pesticides such as DDT and dieldrin threatened its existence in the Southeastern United States and California, it was listed under the United States Endangered Species Act from 1970 to 2009.

In 1972, in Florida, followed by the rest of the United States, the use of DDT was banned. Since then, the number of brown pelicans has grown. The first National Wildlife Refuge, Florida’s Pelican Island, was set aside by Theodore Roosevelt in 1903 to protect the birds from hunters.

An unmistakable coastal water bird. In single file, groups of Brown Pelicans fly low over the waves, flapping and gliding in unison. When they dive headlong into the water in search of fish, their feeding activity is impressive.

With all gratitude to conservationists, who succeeded in halting the use of DDT and other pesticides, the current growth of this species in the United States represents a success story; the Brown Pelican was critically endangered as recently as the early 1970s.


Out of the nine pelican species, the brown pelican is the smallest but is also often one of the larger seabirds in its range.

It measures about 1 to 1.52 m (3 ft 3 into 5 ft 0 in) in length with a wingspan of 2.03 to 2.28 m (6 ft 8 into 7 ft 6 in).[5] Adult weights can vary from 2 to 5 kg (4.4 to 11.0 lb), around half the weight of the other pelicans found in the Americas, the Per, The average weight of 56 males in Florida, was 3.7 kg (8.2 lb), while that of 47 females was 3.17 kg (7.0 lb).

It has a very long bill, measuring from 280 to 348 mm (11.0 to 13.7 in) in length, like all pelicans.

In its breeding plumage, the subspecies has a white head with a yellowish wash on the crown. There is dark maroon-brown on the nape and collar. There are white lines on the upper sides of the neck at the base of the gular pouch, and a pale yellowish patch is present on the lower fore neck.

The feathers are elongated at the centre of the nape, creating brief, deep chestnut crest feathers. With a brownish tinge, it has a silvery grey mantle, scapulars and upper wing coverts (feathers on the upper side of the wings).

There are dark bases in the lesser coverts, which offer a streaky appearance to the leading edge of the wing. At the middle, the upper tail coverts (feathers above the tail) are silvery-white, creating pale stripes.

The median, primary (connected to the distal forelimb), secondary (connected to the ulna), and greater coverts (feathers of the outermost, highest, a row of upper wing coverts) are blackish, with white shafts for the primaries and variable silver-grey fringes for the secondary ones.

Silver-gray with a brownish tinge is the tertials (feathers arising in the brachial region). The underwing has greyish-brown remiges to the outer primary feathers with white shafts.

With a large, silver-grey central area, the axillaries and covert feathers are black. With a variable silvery cast, the tail is dark grey. When it scoops out prey, the lower mandible is blackish with a greenish-black gular pouch at the bottom for draining water.

The breast and belly are dark, and black on the legs and feet. It has a greyish white bill tinged with brown and mixed with pale carmine spots. The crown is short in colour and pale reddish-brown.

The back, rump, and tail are streaked with grey and dark brown, often with a rusty hue. The male and female are identical, but the female is slightly smaller.

Due to the inner air sacks under its skin and in its bones, it is unusually buoyant. In the air, it is as agile as on ground it is clumsy.

There are a white head and neck on the nonbreeding adult, and a creamy yellow head on the pre-breeding adult. In the nonbreeding season, the pink skin around the eyes becomes dull and grey.

The pouch is heavily olive ochre tinged, and the legs are olive-grey to blackish-grey, and it lacks any red hue. It has pale blue to yellowish-white irides which, during the breeding season, become brown.

The bill becomes pinkish-red to pale-orange during courtship, redder at the tip, and the pouch is blackish. The bill becomes pale ash grey over much of the upper jaw and the basal third of the mandible later in the breeding season.

The juvenile is similar, but overall it is greyish-brown and has paler underparts[Dusky-brown is the head, neck, and thighs, and dull white in the abdomen. The male’s plumage is similar to a fully adult female, although the head feathers of the male are very rigid.

The tail and flight feathers are browner than the adults. It has short, brown upper wing coverts, which on larger coverts are sometimes darker, and dull brownish-grey underwing coverts with a middle of a whitish band.

The irides are dark brown, and bluish is the facial tissue. It has a grey bill near the tip that is horn-yellow to orange, with a pouch that is dark grey to pinkish-grey.

When the feathers on the neck grow paler, the upper parts grow spotted, the greater upper and median coverts become greyer, and the belly acquires dark spots, it acquires adult plumage at over three years of age.

In comparison to cooperative fishing from the surface, the brown pelican is easily differentiated from the American white pelican by its brown plumage, smaller scale, and habit of diving for fish from the air. The Peruvian pelican and the brown pelican are the only true marine pelican species.

During shows, the brown pelican makes a large range of loud, grunting sounds. The adult often rarely emits a low croak, although young people sometimes squeal.


The brown pelican lives in the Americas on the Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific coasts. After breeding, North American birds migrate farther north along the coasts in flocks, return later on.

The brown pelican is a marine species, mainly inhabiting subtidal marine, warm estuarine, and pelagic marine waters. It can also be discovered in mangrove swamps and prefers shallow waters, especially near saline bays and beaches.

It avoids the open sea, rarely venturing more than 20 miles from the coast. In certain areas along the Pacific shore of South America, its range can even overlap with the Peruvian pelican. On rocks, water, rocky cliffs, piers, mudflats, sand beaches, and jetties, it roosts.

Bays of salt, beaches, the ocean. Particularly on sheltered bays, often over shallow waters along the immediate coast; often seen far out to sea.

Island nests, which can be either bare and rocky or surrounded by mangroves or other plants. Strays can appear on inland lakes of freshwater.


Most brown pelican populations are nonmigratory (resident) and dispersive (species moving from its birth site to its breeding site or its breeding site to another breeding site).

But some migration is observed, particularly in the northern areas of its range, these movements are often irregular, depending on local conditions. They are vagrants (found beyond their normal range) in Tierra del Fuego, to the south.

They have been recorded off Brazil’s eastern coast, in Alagoas. Rare inland vagrants have been recorded from the Colombian Andes, usually triggered by hurricanes or El Niño phenomena.

They were first recorded at the Interandean Valley in July 2009 where they stayed for a minimum of 161 days. T


The brown pelican is a rather gregarious bird; they live in flocks of both sexes throughout the year. In level flight, brown pelicans fly in groups, with their heads kept back on their shoulders and their bills resting on their folded necks.

They can fly in a V formation, but typically in standard lines or single file, sometimes low over the water’s surface. To prevent water from the nasal passage, they have narrower internal regions of the nostrils.


A piscivore, mainly feeding on fish, is the brown pelican. Menhaden can account for 90% of its diet, and the supply of anchovy is especially critical for the nesting success of the brown pelican.

Minnows, pinfish, herring, sheepshead, silversides, mullets, sardines, and pigfish are quite frequently preyed on by other fish.

Brown pelicans living in Southern California rely heavily on pacific sardine as the main food source that can make up to 26% of their diet, making them one of the region’s top three sardine predators.

Non-fish prey includes crustaceans, particularly prawns, and often feeds on amphibians and bird eggs and nestlings (egrets, common murres and nestlings of birds).

When the brown pelican flies over the ocean at a maximum height of 18 to 21 m (60 to 70 ft), it can spot fish schools when flying.

While foraging, it dives bill-first like a kingfisher frequently submerging briefly completely below the surface as it snaps up prey. After surfacing, before swallowing its catch, it spills the water from its throat pouch.

Only the Peruvian pelican shark Other fish-eating birds such as gulls, skuas, and frigatebirds are an occasional subject of kleptoparasitism. Due to the high capacity of its salt glands to excrete salt, they are able to drink salty water. 


During the breeding season, the brown pelican is a monogamous breeder but does not match for life. During March and April, the nesting season peaks. The male prefers a nesting season. 

Once a pair forms a bond, there is limited overt contact between them. It is a colonial species, with for several years several colonies maintained. Colonies often move, possibly due to disturbance, tick infestation, or change in the food supply.

It nests in secluded locations, sometimes on islands, in mangroves, vegetated spots between sand dunes, thickets of shrubs and trees, and although sometimes on cliffs, and less often in bushes or small trees. Nesting territories are clustered, as individual territories may be at a distance from each other.

There are normally two to three, or sometimes even four, oval eggs in a clutch, and only one brood is raised each year. The egg is chalky white and can be about 76 mm (3.0 in) in length and 51 mm (2.0 in) in width.

Incubation takes about 28 to 30 days with both sexes sharing duties, keeping the eggs warm by carrying them on or under their webbed feet. For the eggs to hatch, it takes 28 to 30 days, and about 63 days to flee.

After that, the juvenile leaves the nest and assemble into small groups known as pods. The newly hatched chicks are pink and can weigh about 60 g (0.13 lb). They turn grey or black within 4 to 14 days. After that, they grow a white, black or greyish down coat.

The parents regurgitate predigested food to feed their young on before they enter their fledging stage—the young venture out of the nest after about 35 days. The young begin to fly about 71 to 88 days after hatching.

The adults stay with them until some time afterwards and continue to feed them. The nest continues to feed them throughout the 8 to 10-month span throughout which they are cared for.


Predation is occasional in colonies, and egg predators and young people can include vultures, corvids, gulls, raptors (especially bald eagles), alligators, and, fish crows (usually small nestlings are threatened but also sometimes up to fledgeling size depending on the size of the predator).

 Predation is likely to be minimized if the colony is on an island. Predation is rarely recorded on adult brown pelicans, but cases have been reported where they have fallen victim to bald eagles.

Even, by seizing them from underneath as the birds sit on ocean waters, South American sea lions and unidentified big sharks have been observed to prey on adult brown pelicans.

The invasive red imported fire ant is known to prey on hatchlings. Like all pelicans, brown pelicans are extremely susceptible to human disturbances (including visitors or fishermen) at their nests.

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