Brown Pelican

Brown Pelican

American brown pelican, Common pelican, Brown pelican

Pelecanus occidentalis
Population size
Life Span
15-43 yrs
Top speed
65 km/h
2.7-5.5 kg
106-137 cm
1.8-2.8 m

The brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis ) is a bird of the pelican family, Pelecanidae, one of three species found in the Americas and one of two that feed by diving into water. It is found on the Atlantic Coast from New Jersey to the mouth of the Amazon River, and along the Pacific Coast from British Columbia to northern Chile, including the Galapagos Islands. The nominate subspecies in its breeding plumage has a white head with a yellowish wash on the crown. The nape and neck are dark maroon–brown. The upper sides of the neck have white lines along the base of the gular pouch, and the lower fore neck has a pale yellowish patch. The male and female are similar, but the female is slightly smaller. The nonbreeding adult has a white head and neck. The pink skin around the eyes becomes dull and gray in the nonbreeding season. It lacks any red hue, and the pouch is strongly olivaceous ochre-tinged and the legs are olivaceous gray to blackish-gray.

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The brown pelican mainly feeds on fish, but occasionally eats amphibians, crustaceans, and the eggs and nestlings of birds. It nests in colonies in secluded areas, often on islands, vegetated land among sand dunes, thickets of shrubs and trees, and mangroves. Females lay two or three oval, chalky white eggs. Incubation takes 28 to 30 days with both sexes sharing duties. The newly hatched chicks are pink, turning gray or black within 4 to 14 days. About 63 days are needed for chicks to fledge. Six to 9 weeks after hatching, the juveniles leave the nest, and gather into small groups known as pods.

The brown pelican is the national bird of Saint Martin, Barbados, Saint Kitts and Nevis, and the Turks and Caicos Islands, and the official state bird of Louisiana, appearing on the flag, seal, or coat of arms of each. It has been rated as a species of least concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. It was listed under the United States Endangered Species Act from 1970 to 2009, as pesticides such as dieldrin and DDT threatened its future in the Southeastern United States and California. In 1972, the use of DDT was banned in Florida, followed by the rest of the United States. Since then, the brown pelican's population has increased. In 1903, Theodore Roosevelt set aside the first National Wildlife Refuge, Florida's Pelican Island, to protect the species from hunters.

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Soaring birds












Soaring birds




Serial monogamy






Highly social


Partial Migrant


starts with


U.S. States Animals


The Brown pelican has been described as a comically elegant bird. It has a big bill, a sinuous neck, and a large, dark body. Groups of them glide above surf along western and southern coasts, gracefully echoing the waves with their rise and fall. They plunge-dive from high up to feed, the force of impact serving to stun small fish, which they then scoop up. Today this species is fairly common - a good example of recovery from the pesticide pollution that once threatened them with extinction.



The Brown pelican occurs throughout the Pacific, Atlantic, and Gulf Coasts of the Americas. Most brown pelican populations are resident (nonmigratory) and dispersive (moving from their birth site to their breeding site, or their breeding site to another breeding site); however, some populations migrate, depending on local conditions. Brown pelicans are strictly marine and coastal birds but occasionally follow large rivers during storms. They avoid the open sea and rarely occur far offshore, usually frequenting shallow waters along coasts, as well as estuaries and bays. They breed on the arid coasts of flat, bare, remote islands, or occasionally in mangroves. Brown pelicans can often be seen around fishing ports.

Brown Pelican habitat map

Climate zones

Brown Pelican habitat map
Brown Pelican
Public Domain Dedication (CC0)

Habits and Lifestyle

Brown pelicans are very gregarious and live throughout the year in flocks. They are diurnal but sometimes forage at night during a full moon. They sleep on land either while standing on both their feet or resting on their breast and belly, their head sideways on their shoulder with their beak tilted towards the side. This is the only pelican species that dives from height as the main method of obtaining food. Their air sacs enable buoyancy for them in the water. They do not swim under the water but plunge their head below the surface when catching prey. Brown pelicans are territorial during the nesting period. Threat displays, often carried out when another pelican is too close to an individual’s nest involve head swaying, indicating readiness to interact, and bowing and a "hrraa-hrraa" sound. Young pelicans who approach a nest too closely are often killed.

Group name
Seasonal behavior
Bird's call

Diet and Nutrition

Brown pelicans are carnivores (piscivores), primarily feeding on fish such as menhaden, herring, silversides, pigfish, and mullet. They will also eat crustaceans such as prawns and occasionally may take amphibians and the eggs and nestlings of birds (egrets, common murres, and their own species).

Mating Habits

spring in northern parts; year-round in tropics
28-30 days
63-76 days
chick, nestling
2-3 eggs

Brown pelicans are serially monogamous, which means they mate with one partner for only one breeding season. The male chooses and defends his nest site prior to courtship. Ritual displays may include head swaying, and bowing and turning, while the pair utter a low “raaa”. Once courtship is over, both birds build the nest in a tree, on a cliff, or on the ground. The breeding season is in spring in the parts of the range in the north, but all year round in the tropics. These pelicans breed in colonies, and sites are sometimes maintained for several years. 2-3 white chalky eggs are laid. Both parents share the incubation of 28-30 days and all nesting duties. Once hatched, chicks are fed by the regurgitation of liquid matter, a sort of “fish-soup”, and later, regurgitated fish. For nests on the ground, young fledge when they are 63 days old, and depend on their parents for a further two weeks. Birds in tree nests fledge at about 74-76 days old and are immediately independent. They become reproductively mature at 3-4 years of age.


Population threats

Brown pelicans do not have many natural enemies. Although nests on the ground are sometimes destroyed by flooding, hurricane, or other natural disasters, people pose the biggest threat to pelicans. In the early 20th and late 19th centuries, pelicans’ feathers were sought after to adorn women’s clothing, especially hats. Today tourists and fishermen threaten them by disturbing their colonies, especially in Mexico.

Population number

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service resource, the total population size of the Brown pelican is estimated at 650,000 individuals. Included are 12,000 breeding pairs in the U.S. Gulf Coast in Louisiana and Texas and over 11,000 breeding pairs of the southern Californian subspecies, which includes nesting islands off Mexico. Overall, currently, Brown pelicans are classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List and their numbers today are increasing.

Ecological niche

Brown pelicans are important for their ecosystem in that they may have an influence on the fish population that is included in their diet.

Fun Facts for Kids

  • Brown pelicans, after bathing, use their beaks to spread oil from the uropygial gland over their feathers.
  • Courtship displays by Brown pelicans usually last 2-4 days, but sometimes as long as three weeks.
  • Brown pelicans incubate their eggs by means of their webbed feet, turning the eggs from time to time.
  • Brown pelicans are the only type of pelican that dive in order to catch prey. They glide low above the water and when they see a fish they fly to a height of 10 m (30 ft), fold their wings back, and plunge down into the sea.
  • Brown pelicans do exercises, including stretching and turning their pouch inside out to maintain its flexibility.


1. Brown Pelican Wikipedia article -
2. Brown Pelican on The IUCN Red List site -
3. Xeno-canto bird call -

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