Brown Pelican: Seashore Saturday

Our seabird of the week is the Brown Pelican. The Brown Pelican is the smallest of the eight species of pelicans in the world. It is one of the three species who live in the Western Hemisphere.

Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis)


Brown Pelicans are large seabirds who stand about 51″ in length. They are gray-brown with long wings, necks and bills. An unmistakable feature of the Brown Pelican is their throat patch, which expands while foraging for food. Pacific Pelicans tend to be bigger with slate gray bodies and darker bellies. While breeding their throat patches are bright red and they have dark napes with a yellow crown. Atlantic Pelicans are smaller and their throats are a greenish-black during breeding. They have a white crown and the nape of their necks are dark brown.

A Brown Pelicans flies over Bodega Bay, California  (Image by Frank Schulenburg via wikipedia)


Pacific Coast between Southern California and Southern Ecuador, Atlantic Coast between Maryland and Venezuela, and the Gulf Coast. Sometimes found north of typical breeding range


Oceans, beaches, and salt bay. Typically not found very far inland. Pacific Coast Pelicans breed offshore on dry rocky beaches. Gulf and Atlantic Coast Pelicans breed mainly on barrier islands or on islands in estuaries. They breed in mangrove islets in Louisiana and Florida.


Almost exclusively fish. Brown Pelicans and their relatives, the Peruvian Pelican, are the only two of the eight Pelicans that plunge dive for food. Brown Pelicans can plunge dive  from up to 60-65 feet in the air. They dive bill first and their throat patch expands in order to catch fish. During the dive, the pelican will twist its body to the left to protect its esophagus and trachea from impact. Its body will submerge under water briefly and the bird will surface with water and fish in its throat. Brown Pelicans tilt their head down to empty out the water in their throats before swallowing the fish.

A Brown Pelican plunge diving (Image by Ingrid Taylar via


Brown Pelicans nest in large colonies that include thousands of  pairs. They are monogamous during breeding season. Males will perch at a nest site for up to 3 weeks while trying to attract a female. Nests are built by the female with materials gathered by the male on the ground, in a low tree, or on a cliff. The nest is a scrape on the ground usually lined with natural materials.

Both sexes will incubate 2-4 eggs with their feet. They are essentially standing on their eggs. Incubation lasts up to 30 days and chicks are fed by both parents. When the young get slightly older they will gather in groups. The parents are able to pick out their young from the group for feeding. Young Pelicans typically take their first flights between 9-12 weeks of age, but are fed by their parents for some time afterwards.


Adults are nonverbal, while the young will make grunts and groans from the nest

Fun Facts:

  • Pesticides, such as DDT, caused a large drop in population in the 1950s to the 1970s. DDT was causing the lining of the pelican’s eggshells to become so thin that the eggs would break under the parent’s weight. Since the ban of these chemicals, Brown Pelican populations have improved drastically and stabilized. They are still considered a Priority Bird, but are an example of how conservation efforts can be successful.
  • American White Pelicans are larger than Brown Pelicans are usually fly higher in the air. Brown Pelicans fly slowly over the water’s surface, usually seen in single file or a “V”, with the birds flapping in unison.
  • A Pelican’s throat can fill with up to 2.6 gallons of water while fishing. Since Pelicans have to open their bills to empty out the water, Gulls tend to steal fish right out of the Pelican’s mouth. Sometimes Gulls are even seen perching on a Pelican’s head waiting for fish! Pelicans can be scavengers as well, sometimes following fishing boats or taking handouts from people.
A flock of Brown Pelicans (Image via



Author: BirdNation

I am an avid birder, teacher, and nature lover. I primarily go birding in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but love to travel. I am currently a biology student with interests in conservation biology, ornithology, and environmental sciences. My dream is to go birding in all 50 states.

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