The Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) is the smallest of the eight species of pelican, although it is a large bird in nearly every other regard. It is 106-137 cm (42-54 in) in length, weighs from 2.75 to 5.5 kg (6-12 lb) and has a wingspan from 1.83 to 2.5 m (6 to 8.2 ft).
It occurs on coasts in the Americas from Washington and Virginia south to northern Chile and the mouth of the Amazon River, as well as the island of Saut d'Eau in Trinidad and Tobago. Some immature birds may stray to inland freshwater lakes. After nesting, North American birds move in flocks further north along the coasts, returning to warmer waters for winter. Their young are hatched in broods of about 3, and eat around 150 lbs. of fish in the 8-10 month period they are cared for.
This bird is distinguished from the American White Pelican by its brown body and its habit of diving for fish from the air, as opposed to co-operative fishing from the surface. It eats mainly fish and amphibians as well as crustaceans. Groups of Brown Pelicans often travel in single file, flying low over the water's surface.
The nest location varies from a simple scrape on the ground on an island to a bulky stick nest in a low tree. These birds nest in colonies, usually on islands.
It is a myth that Brown Pelicans go blind from diving into the water to catch fish, causing them to starve to death because they can no longer see to hunt. However, pelicans can live and fish for up to thirty years without going blind. Pelicans can go blind from pollution, abuse and disease, including chemical spills near the coast, fishing line, and avian botulism from tainted fish caught in overly warm water.
Pesticides like DDT and dieldrin threatened the Brown Pelican's future in the southeast United States and California in the early 1970s. Pesticides also threatened the pelican population in Florida in this period. A research group from the University of Tampa headed by Dr. Ralph Schreiber conducted research in the Tampa Bay/St Petersburg area and found that DDT caused the pelican eggshells to be overly-thin and incapable of supporting the embryo to maturity. As a result of this research, DDT usage was eliminated in Florida and the rest of the country.
Along with the American White Pelican, the Brown Pelican is protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.
There are five subspecies:
- P. o. californicus (California Brown Pelican)
- P. o. carolinensis (Eastern Brown Pelican) Gmelin, 1789
- P. o. occidentalis (Caribbean Brown Pelican) Linnaeus, 1766
- P. o. murphy (Pacific Brown Pelican) Wetmore, 1945
- P. o. urinator (Galapagos Brown Pelican) Wetmore, 1945
The Peruvian Pelican, Pelecanus thagus, used to be considered a subspecies of the Brown Pelican (P. o. thagus). Due to its well-defined allopatry and because it is much larger and heavier than its relatives, it has been reclassified as a separate species.
The Brown Pelican is the national bird of the Turks and Caicos Islands, and state bird of Louisiana. It is also one of the mascots of Tulane University and is on its seal because of the Louisiana connection.
P. o. californicus turning to dive at the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve
A small flock near Point Fermin
- ^ a b c "Brown Pelicans - Myths and Facts Part I". allatsea.net. http://www.allatsea.net/article/September_2005/Brown_Pelicans_-_Myths_and_Facts_Part_I. Retrieved 2009-09-19.
- BirdLife International (2006). Pelecanus occidentalis. 2006. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. IUCN 2006. www.iucnredlist.org. Retrieved on 12 May 2006.
- All At Sea (2005)  retrieved 19 September 2009