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Overview

Brief Summary

The brown pelican's image adorns postage stamps across the Americas, from Bermuda and Belize to Venezuela and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. It is Louisiana's state bird and the national bird for Turks and Caicos Islands.

With its dark plumage and distinct feeding methods, the brown pelican sets itself apart from seven other pelican species. Aside from being one of the smaller pelican species, the brown pelican is the only one that is known to dive and dine. Most pelican species feed by corralling fish into shallow waters through a group chase before scooping them up with their large beaks. Brown pelicans have their own distinct method: once they spot light reflecting off the scales of fish, they plunge into the water from heights of up to 70 feet where they scoop up fish, drain water through their beaks and tip their heads back to swallow (MarineBio.org: Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, 2010 ). Air sacs beneath their skin protect them from injury when they hit the water (read more: General Description and Elkhorn Slough Birds: Brown Pelican.

The air sacs are also part of what helps these birds fly. Their body length measures 48 inches (1.2 m) on average, which is about the height of a nine-year old child. Yet their weight rarely exceeds 12 lbs (1.4 kg). The trick to keeping such a large bird aloft is not just a long wingspan, but a body made light through air sacs (AvianWeb.com, 2010).

The pelican's recent history is one of struggle against destructive human activities like unregulated hunting and pollution. Over the past century, their ill fortune has wrought positive change, inspiring the creation of one of the first bird refuges in the U.S. as well as a ban against toxic pesticides. Most recently, it became the inadvertent poster animal of the disastrous impact of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. (read more: Conservation)

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Comprehensive Description

The brown pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, is characterized by an extremely large gray bill, pale yellow eyes, black legs and feet, and an unfeathered black throat pouch (e.g. Terres 1980; Farrand 1983). Plumage coloration varies with age and season, and descriptions are divided accordingly below. Both sexes exhibit identical coloration at each phase. Adult Breeding Plumage is primarily gray and brown, marked with a blackish belly, yellowish head, and chestnut or cinnamon brown nape and hindneck (Terres 1980; Farrand 1983; Harrison 1996).Adult Non-breeding Plumage is similar but duller to that of the adult coloration during the summer season (Farrand 1983; Harrison 1996). The nape and hindneck are mostly white with occasional tinges of yellow.Juvenile/Immature Plumage is mostly brown above, blending to a white breast and underparts (Farrand 1983; Harrison 1996). Adult plumage is acquired by the third year.
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Distribution

Range Description

This species is found in the Americas, breeding along the Pacific coast from California (USA) to Chile and along the Atlantic coast from South Carolina (USA) through the West Indies to Venezuela, ranging as far as Canada and Tierra del Fuego (Chile) in the non-breeding season (del Hoyo et al. 1992).
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Brown pelicans are found in warm, shallow waters throughout the nearctic and neotropical regions of both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Although considered strictly coastal, there are some records of brown pelicans living inland during the post-breeding season. Lake Okeechobee, FL and Salton Sea, CA are two locations where these birds have been documented off the coast. They breed in 10 coastal states in the U.S.: Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, Texas, and California. In Mexico, brown pelicans are found on offshore islands, and coastal areas along the Caribbean and along the Gulf of Mexico. They have been found on the Pacific coasts in Honduras, Costa Rica, Belize, and Panama. South American sites include the Caribbean coast of Colombia, Venezuela, Aruba, and the Galapagos Island. The only colony on the Pacific coast in South America is in Ecuador. In the West Indies, sites have been documented in Cuba, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, British Virgin Islands, Barbuda, and Antigua.

Biogeographic Regions: nearctic (Native ); neotropical (Native )

  • Sheilds, M. 2002. The Birds of North America. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
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occurs (regularly, as a native taxon) in multiple nations

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National Distribution

Canada

Origin: Native

Regularity: Regularly occurring

Currently: Present

Confidence: Confident

Type of Residency: Transient

United States

Origin: Native

Regularity: Regularly occurring

Currently: Present

Confidence: Confident

Type of Residency: Year-round

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Global Range: (>2,500,000 square km (greater than 1,000,000 square miles)) Breeding range extends along the Pacific coast from southern California to South America and along Atlantic, Gulf, and Caribbean coasts from Maryland south to Florida and westward to southern Texas, plus the Bahamas, West Indies, Yucatan Peninsula, and off Venezuela and the Caribbean coast of Colombia. During the nonbreeding season, brown pelicans range in Pacific coastal waters north to southern British Columbia (after breeding, before winter); in western North America, the species winters mainly from California south; in the southeastern U.S., the primary winter range includes Florida and the Gulf Coast.

Subspecies CAROLINENSIS: breeds locally in Maryland and Virginia and south to Florida (primary nesting range), also locally in Louisiana (where reintroduced) and in central coastal Texas; breeds locally also off northeastern Yucatan and Belize, and ranges southward through coastal Honduras and Costa Rica to Panama, where local breeding occurs off the Pacific coast; vagrants wander north to New England and occur casually inland to the Great Lakes and Great Plains states (Johnsgard 1993). Breeds also in the Bahamas (Sprunt 1984) (extirpated, according to Johnsgard 1993). Ranges throughout breeding range and along eastern shores of Mexico south along Central America to the Caribbean coasts of Colombia and Venezuela, and through the Greater and Lesser Antilles to Trinidad; and on the Pacific coast of Central America (AOU 1957).

Subspecies CALIFORNICUS: breeds along Pacific coast in southern California (Anacapa Island), and in Mexico on islands off Baja California and on islands in the Gulf of California (south to Isabella and the Tres Marias Islands); possibly locally along the coast of Sonora and Sinaloa; vagrants have occurred north to British Columbia and Idaho (Johnsgard 1993).

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P. occidentalis is found on both coasts of North and South America (Harrison 1996). Its range extends along the Pacific coast from Washington south to Peru, including the Galapagos Islands, and on the Atlantic coast from North Carolina throughout the Caribbean to Brazil. Occasionally, birds are spotted as far north as British Columbia and Nova Scotia on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, respectively (Farrand 1983). The species is common in the southeast United States and is the state bird of Louisiana (Terres 1980). Populations are found around beaches, bays and a variety of habitats in tidal estuaries (Farrand 1983). Brown pelicans are rarely seen inland except accidentally as the result of hurricanes and other strong storms (Terres 1980).Indian River Lagoon (India River Lagoon) Distribution: Brown pelicans are found throughout the India River Lagoon in all habitats. Large groups of birds tend to gather near marinas, jetties and other popular fishing spots to feed on scraps as fishers clean their catch.
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Physical Description

Morphology

Brown pelicans are easily distinguished by their large body, long bill, and very large gular pouch. They are the darkest plumed of the pelicans. They weigh 2 to 5 kg, and males are 15 to 20% heavier than females. They have a body length of 100 to 137 cm, a bill that ranges from 25 to 38 cm in length (10% longer in males than females), and an average wingspan of 200 cm (which is 3 to 6% longer in males). They have feet with webbing that stretches from the front to the hind toe. Their gular pouch is able to hold up to 3 gallons of water, which is 3 times more than what the stomach can hold. The distal portion of the gular pouch is a dark gray-green year round and during mating, the proximal area of the gular pouch turns a bright red. During incubation, the proximal area of the pouch turns back to the normal gray-green color.

During the first year, the underside is white and molt cycles are so rapid that definitive colors are not easily defined per molt. At around 10 weeks, molting starts and juvenile pelicans undergo 6 molts before reaching definitive basic plumage which then is slightly altered during breeding season. Around 3 to 5 years, plumage has developed, the upper areas turn gray to gray-brown, the abdomen turns a blackish-brown, and the remainder of the underside is striped with black and silver markings. During molting, adult pelicans can adopt up to 3 appearances. During post-breeding season the head becomes pale yellow and the neck becomes white. Immediately prior to breeding the head becomes yellow but the neck turns a dark brown color. During the nesting period, the head turns white with randomly-placed dark feathers and a brown neck. The plumage in males and females is similar except that females are likely to molt before males (females molt at 34 to 36 months; males at 36 to 40 months).

Juvenile brown pelicans display a brown iris which changes to a light tan or blue during courtship. After onset of incubation, the iris returns to a dark brown color. Additionally, juveniles display a black eye ring until 16 to 19 months, at which point it turns pale blue-black color. In adults, this eye ring is a gray-pink most of the year, changes to pink during mating, and then darkens to brown following onset of incubation.

Range mass: 2 to 5 kg.

Range length: 100 to 137 cm.

Average wingspan: 200 cm.

Other Physical Features: endothermic ; homoiothermic; bilateral symmetry

Sexual Dimorphism: male larger

  • Bartholomew, G., W. Dawsom. 1954. Temperature Regulation in Young Pelicans, Herons, and Gulls. Ecology, 35/4: 466-472.
  • Schreiber, R. 1980. Nesting Chronology of the Eastern Brown Pelican. The Auk, 97/3: 491-508.
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Size

Length: 122 cm

Weight: 3636 grams

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Although it is considered the smallest member of the pelican family (Terres 1980), P. occidentalis is a large marine bird often measuring over 1 m in length (Harrison 1996) with a wingspan of nearly 2.3 meters (Farrand 1983) and a total weight of about 8 pounds (3.6 kg). (Terres 1980). Males average a slightly larger body size than females (Terres 1980). Lifespan varies with environmental conditions, food availability and other factors. Some banded individuals have been documented to exceed 31 years of age (Terres 1980).
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Diagnostic Description

Differs from the white pelican (PELECANUS ERYTHRORHYNCHOS) in being mainly grayish brown overall instead of white.

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Look Alikes

The brown pelican and the Peruvian pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis thagus, are the only true marine pelican species (Harrison 1996). The ranges of the two species rarely overlap, facilitating identification of the birds in their native habitats. However, if directly compared, the brown pelican can be distinguished by a smaller body size, duller plumage, smaller crest and an upperwing lacking the pale forewing patch characteristic of the Peruvian subspecies.The American white pelican, P. erythrorhynchos, is also quite similar to the brown pelican. However, unlike P. occidentalis, the white pelican is larger, bears white plumage in all seasons, and often inhabits inland prairies and coastal areas near freshwater (Farrand 1983). Flight Patterns & Locomotion: While in flight, the brown pelican folds its neck back in a similar fashion to a heron (Farrand 1983), staying aloft with alternating strong strokes and glides. Small flocks of individuals may fly in various formations, and often skim just above the surface of the water. Flight speeds of some individuals have been recorded up to 35 mph (Terres 1980). Birds are clumsy on land, but maneuver effectively in the water and swim well (USFWS 1995).
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Ecology

Habitat

Habitat and Ecology

Habitat and Ecology
This species inhabits shallow inshore waters, estuaries and bays, avoiding the open sea. Its diet is comprised mostly of fish, causing great congregations in areas with abundant prey. Prey species include sardines and anchovies, but has been seem to take shrimps and carrion, and even nestling egrets. It regularly feeds by plunge-diving and is often the victim of kleptoparasites. The timing of breeding varies depending on latitude, breeding in spring in the extreme north of its range compared to all year round in the tropics. Brown Pelicans are colonial, with some colonies being maintained over several years. It mostly nests on the ground, sometimes on cliffs and less often in small trees or bushes. Movements and migrations depend on local conditions (e.g. northern populations migrate south) (del Hoyo et al. 1992).

Systems
  • Terrestrial
  • Freshwater
  • Marine
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Depth range based on 5052 specimens in 1 taxon.
Water temperature and chemistry ranges based on 1054 samples.

Environmental ranges
  Depth range (m): 0 - 0
  Temperature range (°C): 12.220 - 27.601
  Nitrate (umol/L): 0.240 - 3.951
  Salinity (PPS): 30.381 - 36.362
  Oxygen (ml/l): 4.518 - 6.395
  Phosphate (umol/l): 0.101 - 0.674
  Silicate (umol/l): 0.868 - 16.169

Graphical representation

Temperature range (°C): 12.220 - 27.601

Nitrate (umol/L): 0.240 - 3.951

Salinity (PPS): 30.381 - 36.362

Oxygen (ml/l): 4.518 - 6.395

Phosphate (umol/l): 0.101 - 0.674

Silicate (umol/l): 0.868 - 16.169
 
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Pelicans are strictly coastal, rarely living more than 20 miles or 32 km from the shoreline. They are found in warm coastal waters or marine estuaries during the non-breeding season. They require dry areas that are not subjected to frequent disturbance. They roost offshore at night and loaf during the day after or while foraging. Typical loaf and roost sites include sandbars, pilings, jetties, breakwaters, mangrove islets, and offshore rocks or islands. To breed, they move to small, predator-free islands. On the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, brown pelicans are found breeding on barrier islands, natural estuarine islands, or dredge-spoil islands. Along the Pacific Coast and the northern Gulf of California they breed on dry, rocky islands. In mainland Mexico, they are found in mangroves. In the tropics, they inhabit coastal and inland mangroves and humid forests.

Habitat Regions: tropical ; terrestrial ; saltwater or marine

Aquatic Biomes: coastal

Wetlands: marsh ; swamp

Other Habitat Features: urban ; estuarine

  • Tangley, L. 2009. Oil Spill Hammers Brown Pelicans. National Wildlife, 48/6: 12-14.
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Comments: Brown pelicans inhabitat mainly coastal waters and rarely are seen inland or far out at sea. They feed mostly in shallow estuarine waters, less often up to 40 miles from shore. They make extensive use of sand spits, offshore sand bars, and islets for nocturnal roosting and daily loafing, especially nonbreeders and during the non-nesting season. Dry roosting sites are essential.

Nesting occurs usually on coastal islands, on the ground or in small bushes and trees (Palmer 1962), including the middle or upper parts of steep rocky slopes of small islands in California and Baja California and low-lying islands landward of barrier islands or reefs on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, where nests often are in mangroves, sometimes in Australian "pines," red-cedars, live oaks, redbays, or sea grapes. In the subtropics and tropics, mangrove vegetation constitutes an important roosting and nesting substrate (Collazo and Klaas 1985, Schreiber 1979, Schreiber and Schreiber 1982). Brown pelican may shift among different breeding sites, apparently in response to changing food supply distribution (Anderson and Gress 1983) and/or to erosion/flooding of nesting sites.

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Depth range based on 5052 specimens in 1 taxon.
Water temperature and chemistry ranges based on 1054 samples.

Environmental ranges
  Depth range (m): 0 - 0
  Temperature range (°C): 12.220 - 27.601
  Nitrate (umol/L): 0.240 - 3.951
  Salinity (PPS): 30.381 - 36.362
  Oxygen (ml/l): 4.518 - 6.395
  Phosphate (umol/l): 0.101 - 0.674
  Silicate (umol/l): 0.868 - 16.169

Graphical representation

Temperature range (°C): 12.220 - 27.601

Nitrate (umol/L): 0.240 - 3.951

Salinity (PPS): 30.381 - 36.362

Oxygen (ml/l): 4.518 - 6.395

Phosphate (umol/l): 0.101 - 0.674

Silicate (umol/l): 0.868 - 16.169
 
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Migration

Non-Migrant: Yes. At least some populations of this species do not make significant seasonal migrations. Juvenile dispersal is not considered a migration.

Locally Migrant: Yes. At least some populations of this species make local extended movements (generally less than 200 km) at particular times of the year (e.g., to breeding or wintering grounds, to hibernation sites).

Locally Migrant: Yes. At least some populations of this species make annual migrations of over 200 km.

Many stay close to nesting areas in winter. A portion of the eastern subspecies migrates to Florida, the Caribbean coasts of Colombia and Venezuela, and the Greater Antilles for winter. During cold winters, some Texas breeders winter along the Gulf Coast of Mexico. Individuals from breeding areas north of Florida winter mainly in Florida and Cuba; young and adults from Florida breeding colonies are more sedentary (young generally do not disperse more than 250 km from natal areas, adults may move up to 450-575 km from colony during the nonbreeding season) (Johnsgard 1993).

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Trophic Strategy

Brown pelicans are carnivores, primarily feeding on fish but also small marine invertebrates. They are the only pelicans that dive for their food. Their astounding eyesight while in flight allows them to dive from up to 20 meters in the air. Although their eyesight is poor underwater, they can often be observed floating and feeding by surface-seizing with success. The lower jaw is split into two halves which turn out upon impact with the water's surface, forming a scoop with the gular pouch. Brown pelicans forage up to 20 km from their nesting sites and can travel up to 175 km from the mainland and 75 km from an island during non-breeding season from fall to early winter. Most are observed foraging close to shore but there are records of them diving up to 20 miles offshore and they are almost never seen feeding in freshwater lakes or streams. They are typically solitary while foraging, but if two or more forage together they will feed in sequence, driving fish towards the other(s). Foraging is most commonly observed in early morning and evening and occasionally at night during a full moon. Florida pelicans forage on small fish and some marine invertebrates in shallow waters, typically in water less than 150 meters deep.

Herring and fry fish in the Virgin Islands have been studied as being the fish of choice after being driven to the surface by other predatory fish such as sharks, salmon, and dolphins. From Cuba to Bermuda, stomach contents have shown herring, anchovies, sardines, and fry to all be consumed most frequently. Begging and scavenging on piers, docks, and boats can also make up a good portion of a their diet if they live within range of any of these. Laughing gulls (Laris atricilla) often steal food from their beaks, sometimes perching on their back and waiting for the opportunity. Although rare, brown pelicans have been observed stealing fish from the beaks of other birds as well.

The young are fed through regurgitation of pre-digested fish onto the nest floor and as much as 50 kg of fish is consumed from the hatchling to fledgling stage when raised in captivity. Although no comparable data has been collected on wild brown pelicans, captive adult pelicans have been recorded requiring 0.3 kg of fish per day during the summer months and 0.8 kg of fish per day during the winter months.

Not surprisingly, adult pelicans are more successful hunters than younger birds. A study in Southwest Mexico found that adult pelicans are successful 84% of time compared to only 75% of the time in juveniles. An even greater discrepancy was seen in a study done in Belize; adults were successful 83% of the time where juveniles only had a success rate of 43%. These differences in feeding success could be attributed to diving and prey-handling skills, patch choice, knowledge of appropriate dive heights, angles, and ability to determine likelihood of success. Adult birds were seen "wheeling" in the air but if chance of successful foraging was determined to be low they would continue flying. Juveniles would always dive after a "wheel" regardless of interpreted success, therefore wasting more energy when not successful. A study done in Florida showed a linear correlation between age of the brown pelican and success rate: pelicans less than one year old had 4% success rate, 12 to 22 month old pelicans had a 8% success rate, 22 to 40 month old pelicans had a 12% success rate, and adults older than 36 months had a success rate of 14%.

Brown pelicans are able to drink saltwater due to the salt gland that is unique to birds (although non-functional and smaller in birds that are not exposed to high salinity) which excretes excess salt. These glands are located on the anterior sides of the eyes and are 2.6 to 3cm in length and 0.6 to 0.8 cm in width. These glands are necessary because the kidney is only able to rid the body of half the salt ingested. These glands are able to excrete salt in such high concentrations that it makes the drinking of saltwater tolerable and aids in conservation of water.

Animal Foods: fish; aquatic crustaceans; other marine invertebrates

Primary Diet: carnivore (Piscivore )

  • Brandt, C. 1984. Age and Hunting Success in the Brown Pelican: Influences of Skill and Patch Choice on Forgaging Efficiency. Oecologia, 62/1: 132-137.
  • Carl, R. 1987. Age-class variation in foraging techniques by Brown Pelicans. Condor, 89/3: 525-533.
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The California Brown Pelican recovery plan. 1448-1342-98-N015. Washington, D.C.: USFWS. 1983.
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Comments: Eats mainly fishes, especially menhaden, mullet, sardines, pinfish, and anchovies in U.S. waters; sometimes euphausiids; dives into water from air (USFWS 1980). Feeds by diving in deeper water, by swimming, sometimes in cooperative groups, in shallower water (Hilty and Brown 1986). Rarely reported scavenging or preying on eggs or young of water birds. Forages in shallow estuarine and inshore waters mostly within 10 km of the coast (Johnsgard 1993).

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The brown pelican feeds exclusively on marine fishes and occasional crustaceans by diving into the water head-first from heights of 6 to over 15 meters, capturing up to 4 pounds of prey daily with its long, slender beak (Farrand 1983; USFWS 1995; Harrison 1996). Studies have suggested that the height and angle of these dives vary with the age and skill level of the bird, and dive paths are altered to reduce glare on the surface of the water that may hinder catch success (Carl 1987). The large pouch below the bill acts as dip net to catch prey, but also holds fish for consumption until the water, as much as three gallons, is squeezed out. Once the water is removed, the prey is swallowed. In addition to catching and holding prey, the pouch also serves as a cooling mechanism for the bird in warm weather and a feeding trough for young (USFWS 1995).Predators: Little information is available concerning predators of the brown pelican. Due to their size and long sturdy bill, it is unlikely that adult birds are regularly preyed upon. However, birds of prey, alligators or large mammals could potentially consume eggs and hatchlings.Parasites: Like many other bird species, the brown pelican acts as a terminal or final host for several parasites acquired from a variety of prey items, including the parasitic worms Petagiger sp., Echinochasmus sp., Phagicola longus, Mesostephanus appendiculatoides, Contracaecum multipapillatum, and C. bioccai acquired from the black mullet, Mugil cephalus, the silver mullet, M. curema and other fish prey (Grimes et al. 1989; Zamparo et al. 2005; Mattiucci et al. 2008). Most of these parasites infect the gut, with some imposing minimal negative impacts on the pelican, while others are more virulent or increase the probability of infections by secondary pathogens (e.g. Grimes et al. 1989).
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Associations

Fowl ticks Carios maritimus and Ornithodoros denmarki are found in nests, but there are no documented cases of illness or death from these ectoparasites. Hippoboscid flies (Olfersia sordida) and epidermoptid mites (Myialges caulotoon) are two ectoparasites found on brown pelicans in the Galapagos Islands. In large numbers, mosquitoes can cause nest abandonment. Phagicola longus, Mesostephanus appendiculatoides, Galactostomum darbyi, and Stephanoprora denticulata are the four most prevalent of the 31 known helminths that inhabit the small intestine. One study found a mean of 7,134 helminths per bird, however, no known deaths have occurred as a result of these. Three species of diplostomes have been found in the small intestines of brown pelicans in Texas, which are Bolbophorus confusus, Bursacetabulus pelecanus, and Bursacetabulus macrobursus. Endoparasitic mites from the family Hypoderidae have been removed in subcutaneous tissues of the neck and trachea from brown pelicans in Florida and Louisiana. These include Phalacrodectes punctatissimus, Phalacrodectes pelecani, and Pelecanectes apunctatus. A study done on nestlings in Florida also found Coccidian sporozoa from Eimeria pelecani in fecal samples.

Commensal/Parasitic Species:

  • fowl ticks Carios maritimus
  • fowl ticks Ornithodoros denmarki
  • hippoboscid flies Olfersia sordida
  • epidermoptid mites Myialges caulotoon
  • helminth worms Phagicola longus
  • helminth worms Mesostephanus appendiculatoides
  • helminth worms Mesostephanus appendiculatoides
  • helminth worms Galactostomum darbyi
  • helminth worms Stephanoprora denticulata
  • diplostomes Bolbophorus confusus
  • diplostomes Bursacetabulus pelecanus
  • diplostomes Bursacetabulus macrobursus
  • endoparasitic mites Phalacrodectes punctatissimus
  • endoparasitic mites Phalacrodectes pelecani
  • endoparasitic mites Pelecanectes apunctatus
  • coccidian sporozoa Eimeria pelecani
  • Culicidae

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Humans, Homo sapiens are a serious predator of pelicans, hunting them for their meat, feathers, and eggs. Predatory birds, such as the fish crow (Corvus ossifragu) have been recorded destroying pelican eggs. Although it is rare, bobcats (Felis rufus) have been documented eating both the offspring and injured adults. Feral cats (Felis catus), feral dogs (Canus lupus familiaris), and raccoons (Procyon lotor) will eat the hatchlings when they are able. Two reptiles have been recorded preying on nestlings: Mexican spiny-tailed iguanas (Ctenosaura pectinata) and the American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis). Invasive species such as red imported fire ants (Solenopsis invicta) have infested nests and killed up to 60% of hatchlings in some calses. Although predation on adults is rare, they are occasionally attacked by sharks and sea lions (Otaria flavescens) while floating on the water. When approached by a predator, brown pelicans will usually flee individually without group cohesion. If it is during the incubation or brooding periods, parents will attempt to scare an approaching predator away before fleeing.

Known Predators:

  • humans Homo sapiens
  • fish crows Corvus ossifragu
  • raccoons Procyon lotor
  • bobcats Felis rufus
  • feral cats Felis catus
  • feral dogs Canus lupus familiaris
  • Mexican spiny-tailed iguanas Ctenosaura pectinata
  • American alligators Alligator mississippiensis
  • red imported fire ants Solenopsis invicta
  • sharks Selachimorpha
  • sea lions Otaria flavescens

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Although there are no obligate associations documented between the brown pelican and other species, P. occidentalis is commonly found alongside other organisms from the seagrass beds, mangrove forests, tidal flats and other ecosystems in which it resides. For more extensive information on these environments and their associated species found in the IRL, please visit the Habitats of the IRL page.
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Population Biology

Number of Occurrences

Note: For many non-migratory species, occurrences are roughly equivalent to populations.

Estimated Number of Occurrences: 81 to >300

Comments: Many occurrences are distributed throughout the coastal range in North, Central, and South America.

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Global Abundance

100,000 - 1,000,000 individuals

Comments: Breeding population estimates (pairs): Virginia (50-100 in 1990; Byrd and Johnston 1991), North Carolina (2800), South Carolina (9800), Texas (500 in 1989), Florida (9950 in 1995), Louisiana (1098 in 1990); see Spendelow and Patton (1988) and Clapp and Buckley (1984). Florida's 1995 nesting population was assumed to represent a total population of between 27,100 and 43,800 individuals. Breeding populations in Panama and Mexico are believed to be very large (i.e., 50,000+ birds and 40,000 pairs, respectively) (Crivelli and Anderson 1984), though subject to considerable fluctuation. Subspecies CALIFORNICUS: total population was about 48,500 pairs in the late 1980s; 3000 pairs in southern California, 33,000 pairs in Gulf of California, 7500 pairs on islands off mainland Mexico, and 5000 pairs in southwestern Baja California. Southern California Bight population was about 4200 pairs in 1989 (California Department of Fish and Game 1990). Populations elsewhere are poorly known.

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Brown pelicans are quite abundant along the east coast of the U.S., although populations in parts of the Gulf of Mexico, along the Pacific coast and in Central and South America are still continuing to recover from past populations declines (see 'Threats & Conservation' below).
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General Ecology

Populations fluctuate considerably from year to year and from place to place.

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Life History and Behavior

Behavior

Brown pelicans communicate through visual cues, chemical signals, acoustically, and in a tactile manner. Adult brown pelicans will communicate, particularly during mate selection and nest site protection, with a low "hrraa-hrraa" sound and head swaying. Other interactions include bowing, which is usually more of a defensive behavior. Non-aggressive behaviors include swinging of head side to side, raising of bill horizontally and spreading wings outward, and cleaning the opposite side of the nearby pelican. Peeps from eggs can be heard up to 2 days prior to the start of hatching. Nestlings release a high pitched, scratchy call to their parents usually while the parents are searching for food.

Communication Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic ; chemical

Perception Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic ; chemical

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Cyclicity

Comments: Most activity diurnal, little during twilight.

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Life Expectancy

Brown pelicans have a long lifespan. The oldest individual recorded in the wild was 43 years of age. About 30% of brown pelicans survive past the first year, and less than 2% survive longer than 10 years. Three banded individuals survived past the 20 year mark at 31, 37, and 43 years old. However these data may be incomplete because bands may corrode and fall off after 12 to 15 years. Hatched nestlings have been frequently recorded killing younger siblings either by directly pecking them on head or pushing them from nest, as well as indirectly by not allowing them to feed. The first hatched chick has a survival rate of 70% and one study found that up to 30% of nestlings in one breeding season were killed by the older sibling.

Range lifespan

Status: wild:
43 (high) years.

Average lifespan

Status: wild:
334 months.

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Lifespan, longevity, and ageing

Maximum longevity: 43 years Observations: Banding studies suggest that only 30% of animals survive their first year of life and less than 2% live more than 10 years. Maximum longevity is 43 years (http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/).
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Reproduction

Brown pelicans are seasonally monogamous and nest in irregular patterns. They migrate to 20 to 30 degrees north latitude to breed if they do not live in this range year-round. Nesting lasts throughout the year in certain tropical regions, but generally begins in late fall and lasts into early June. Those which nest between 20 and 30 degrees north latitude nest more regularly through winter into spring. However, those which nest 30 to 35 degrees north of the equator nest definitively in the spring and summer seasons. Nesting is controlled by a variety of factors including: time to nest successfully, molt length, day length fluctuations, food abundance, time when freezing temperatures occur, and timing of hurricane season. Local environmental conditions are the main factor in determining nesting seasons. Sites are used annually until changes in nesting habitat, food availability, or human disturbances induce colony relocation. Breeding locations are ideally within 30 to 50 km of a consistent food supply.

Male brown pelicans select a nest site prior to courtship and pair bond formation. Males protect a potential nest area and nearby perches for up to 3 weeks. Males initiate courtship rituals but both males and females participate. Rituals include head swaying, bowing, and turning. Both sexes also release a "low raaa" call. Courtship typically lasts 2 to 4 days before pair bonding occurs, but can last up to 21 days. As part of the pair bonding and nest building ritual, males present females with nesting materials. Building the nest can take up to 7 days. The first egg is laid 3 days after the completion of the nest.

Mating System: monogamous

The breeding season of brown pelicans varies with latitude, often coinciding with local food abundance. In Maryland, they begin to lay eggs in late May through early September with peaks of egg laying varying between years. In North Carolina, the laying season is mid-March through July. In Florida, egg laying periods vary from east to west coasts; egg laying is December to June on the Atlantic coast and January to June on the Gulf side. In Louisiana, the egg laying season was March to June up until the near extinction of the pelican population in this area. The new population now begins either in December or January and ends in June. Texas populations begin in March and last through June, with egg output peaking in April through May. In south California, egg laying starts in December, lasts until early August and peaks between February and May. In the Gulf of California, egg laying is November until May. In Panama, egg laying lasts from January until May. In west and southwest Puerto Rico, breeding peaks between September and November but in eastern Puerto Rico, brown pelicans breed year-round. In Venezuela, the breeding season is from November to June, peaking between January and February. In the U.S. Virgin Islands, as well as the Galapagos Islands, breeding is year-round.

Copulation occurs about 7 times before the first egg is laid and each act lasts 7 to 14 seconds. During copulation, the male grabs the female's upper neck with his bill, mounts her from behind, and holds her neck in this way until the act is over. The female is passive except for movements of her tail from side to side. Males perform a post mounting display by holding their bill open with their head set back upon the shoulders. Sometimes males will put on displays including bill throws and glottis exposure.

After courtship, pairs build nests in trees or on the ground, and stay in colonies. The optimal spot for ground nests is in medium-density vegetation 1 to 2 meters off the ground. This location allows their offspring to leave the nest earlier than those in trees, some as early as 3 weeks old. The most ideal location for a nest in a tree is a spot with nearby branches adequate for landing and taking off. Male brown pelicans bring the nest-building materials while females build the nests. Material is dependent on what is available at the nest site. Ground nests can be as simple as a shallow depression in the sands lined with grass or as complex as a full structure built out of sticks, grass stems, and seaweed. Nests in trees are typically made up of sticks, grass, or leaves. Males have been documented stealing from unattended nests as well as using man-made materials such as rope or window screening. Males will continue to bring the female building materials during incubation and until juveniles reach fledgling age.

Eggs have a textured surface and are chalky white in color. The number of eggs laid ranges from 1 to 4. Adult brown pelicans lay 3 eggs per season on average, while juvenile pelicans less than 3 years old lay no more than 2 eggs. Pelicans incubate eggs with their webbed feet. Both parents share responsibility for turning and incubating the eggs as well as protecting them from predation. The incubation period typically lasts 29 to 32 days and only about 70% of eggs laid in a season will hatch. Eggs are laid in 24 to 64 hour intervals but will still hatch within 1 day of one another. Brown pelicans in captivity have laid eggs to replace those lost during the nesting season. Brown pelican chicks have a have an egg-tooth on the tip of their beak which they use on the broadest part of the egg to break open the shell. After the initial peck, it usually takes 31 hours for the chicks to fully hatch. Initial weight of brown pelican chicks ranges from 54.9 to 87 grams with an average weight of 73.5 grams. Ten grams of this weight is egg yolk withheld in the abdomen. The egg tooth disappears within 10 days of hatching.

Newly hatched chicks have pinkish gray skin covered in fluff. On postnatal day 9, the chicks' skin has darkened. By day 10, they are lightly covered in a layer of white down which is fully developed by day 20. The legs and feet of brown pelicans less than 24 days old are a dull white color. This quickly changes to a dark grey or black when they are juveniles and into adulthood. Juvenile feathers appear at day 30 and these are kept until adult feathers develop by age 3. They fledge at 11 weeks and are considered independent at 3 months. At this time, they abandon the nest but stay within the vicinity of their birth site. A study found that after forced relocation, most returned to their birth site within 3 years. Those which did not return founded new colonies instead of joining existing ones. Variation in the choice to return or not seemed dependent on food availability and suitable locations for nesting. These nesting areas need to be dry due to the fact that pelicans cannot be directly exposed to water for over an hour without becoming waterlogged. Brown pelicans can mate as young as 2 but the average is 3 to 4 years old.

Breeding interval: Brown pelicans breed seasonally in colder climates and year-round in warmer climates.

Breeding season: The breeding season varies with latitude and often depends on local food availability.

Range eggs per season: 2 to 3.

Average eggs per season: 3.

Range time to hatching: 29 to 30 days.

Average time to hatching: 30 days.

Average fledging age: 11 weeks.

Average time to independence: 3 months.

Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 2 to 4 years.

Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 3-4 years.

Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male): 2 to 4 years.

Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male): 3-4 years.

Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; seasonal breeding ; year-round breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; oviparous

Average eggs per season: 2.

Both males and females work together to build the nest, incubate the eggs, protect the nest, feed and protect the young, and teach the offspring how to fly. Parents alternate guarding the nest until the offspring are 4 to 6 weeks old. Nestlings are ectothermic at birth and rely on their parents to maintain internal temperature. The development of endothermy begins with increased mass, changes in metabolic rates, and an increase in downy feathers. Initially young brown pelicans feed by pecking regurgitated fish off the nest floor, but as coordination increases, they begin to feed directly from their parents' mouths. After the first 4 to 6 weeks, parents spend less time in the nest and mostly return to feed their young. At 5 to 6 weeks, the parents no longer roost in the nest at night, but rather on nearby perches. Parents feed the young until 11 to 12 weeks of age, when the young reach the fledgling stage.

Parental Investment: male parental care ; female parental care ; pre-hatching/birth (Protecting: Male, Female); pre-weaning/fledging (Provisioning: Male, Female, Protecting: Male, Female); pre-independence (Provisioning: Male, Female, Protecting: Male, Female)

  • Bartholomew, G., W. Dawsom. 1954. Temperature Regulation in Young Pelicans, Herons, and Gulls. Ecology, 35/4: 466-472.
  • Miller, J. 1983. The Family of Pelican. Science News, 124/4: 62.
  • Nellis, D. 2001. Common Coastal Birds of Florida & the Caribbean. Sarasota, FL: Pineapple Press, Inc..
  • Robinson, O., J. Dindo. 2011. Egg Success, Hatching Success, and Nest-site Selection of Brown Pelicans, Gaillard Island, Alabama, US. The Wilson Journal of Ornithology, 123/2: 386-390.
  • Schreiber, R. 1980. Nesting Chronology of the Eastern Brown Pelican. The Auk, 97/3: 491-508.
  • Sheilds, M. 2002. The Birds of North America. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
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Along the west coast of North America, egg laying may occur from late winter to early spring (peak usually in March or April but may vary among colonies and from year to year). In southeastern North America, southern populations nest irregularly, usually beginning in late fall and extending through June; northernmost populations nest in spring and summer; intermediate populations nest, somewhat irregularly, in winter and spring. Clutch size averages 2-3. Incubation, by both sexes, lasts about 28-30 days. Young leave ground nests at about 35 days, first fly at 71-88 days; leave nests in mangroves at about 63 days. Some first breed at two years in some colonies (e.g., newly formed ones), possibly not until about four to seven years in stable populations (see Johnsgard 1993). Reproductive success varies with level of disturbance by humans, starvation of young, and/or flooding of nests, but typically the number of young fledged per nest averages one or less. This is a long-lived bird, and reproduction tends to be "boom or bust." Colonies include up to 150 pairs in Trinidad.

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P. occidentalis is a social species, gregarious throughout the year with colonial breeding behavior (Harrison 1996). Breeding dates vary with location, but most populations reproduce from March to August. At the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge in the IRL, breeding continues nearly year-round (Terres 1980).During the breeding season, nests in trees and bushes are constructed from straw or grass placed on mounds of sticks woven onto a supporting branch (Terres 1980). Ground nests are comprised of feather-lined impressions protected with a 10-25 cm rim of soil and debris. Pelicans usually lay 2-3 eggs at a time, incubating them for a period of 28-30 days (Terres 1980). Chicks in ground nests venture out by walking after approximately 35 days, while those in trees wait for about 65-80 days to fly from the nest.Hybrids of brown and white pelicans are possible, and one such offspring was on display at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. in 1937 (Terres 1980).Voice: Adult brown pelicans are silent, rarely emitting a low croak, while hatchlings frequently squeal (e.g. Peterson 1980).
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Evolution and Systematics

Functional Adaptations

Functional adaptation

Body protected from diving impact: brown pelican
 

The body of the brown pelican is protected from impact during plunge-diving thanks to subcutaneous air-sacs.

   
  "Several species of pelicans, boobies, and gannets have extensive subcutaneous air sacs.6,18 In the plunge-diving brown pelicans these air sacs are thought to serve as shock absorbers to decrease the impact of hitting water from great heights.6" (Fowler and Miller 2003:118)

Watch Video
  Learn more about this functional adaptation.
  • Fowler, ME; Miller, RE. 2003. Zoo and Wild Animal Medicine. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders Co.
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Molecular Biology and Genetics

Molecular Biology

Barcode data: Pelecanus occidentalis

The following is a representative barcode sequence, the centroid of all available sequences for this species.


There are 3 barcode sequences available from BOLD and GenBank.

Below is a sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species.

See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen and other sequences.

CGATGATTATTCTCAACCAACCACAAAGATATTGGCACCCTATACTTAATCTTCGGCGCATGAGCCGGAATAGTTGGAACAGCCCTT---AGCCTACTCATTCGGGCCGAACTAGGCCAGCCCGGAACCCTCTTGGGAGAT---GACCAAATCTATAATGTAATCGTCACTGCCCATGCCTTCGTAATAATCTTCTTCATAGTAATACCGATCATAATTGGAGGCTTTGGAAACTGACTAGTTCCCCTCATA---ATCGGCGCCCCGGACATAGCATTCCCACGTATAAACAACATAAGCTTCTGACTCCTACCCCCATCCTTCCTACTCCTCCTAGCCTCATCCACAGTAGAAGCAGGTGCAGGAACAGGATGAACTGTGTACCCCCCACTAGCTGGTAACCTAGCCCATGCCGGAGCCTCAGTAGATCTG---GCTATCTTCTCGCTTCACTTAGCAGGGGTATCCTCTATCCTAGGCGCAATCAACTTCATTACAACCGCCATCAACATAAAACCACCAGCCCTATCACAATATCAAACTCCATTATTCGTATGATCCGTCCTCATCACTGCCGTCCTACTACTATTATCCCTCCCAGTCTTAGCCGCC---GGCATCACCATACTCCTCACAGACCGAAACCTAAATACTACATTCTTCGACCCTGCTGGAGGAGGAGACCCAGTCCTATATCAGCACTTATTCTGATTTTTTGGCCACCCAGAAGTTTACATCCTGATCCTCCCAGGTTTTGGAATCATTTCACATGTGGTAGCATACTATGCCGGCAAAAAA---GAACCATTCGGATACATAGGGATGGTATGGGCCATACTATCCATCGGATTTTTAGGCTTCATTGTATGAGCCCACCACATATTCACAGTAGGAATGGACGTAGACACCCGAGCATACTTCACATCTGCCACCATAATTATCGCCATTCCAACTGGCATCAAAGTTTTCAGCTGATTG---GCTACACTCCACGGAGGC---ACTATTAAATGAGACCCTCCAATCCTGTGGGCCTTGGGCTTTATCTTCTTATTCACTATCGGAGGACTTACAGGCATCGTACTAGCAAACTCCTCCCTAGATATCGCCCTACACGACACATACTACGTAGTAGCTCATTTCCACTACGTC---CTATCCATAGGAGCCGTTTTTGCCATTCTAGCTGGATTCACTCACTGATTCCCCCTATTCACAGGATACACCCTACACCCCACATGAGCTAAGGCCCATTTCGGAGTCATATTCACAGGAGTTAACCTAACCTTCTTCCCACAACACTTCCTGGGCCTAGCTGGCATGCCACGA---CGATACTCAGATTACCCAGACGCCTACACC---CTATGAAACACCATGTCATCTATCGGCTCACTCATCTCAATAACAGCTGTTATTATATTAATGTTCATCATCTGAGAAGCCTTCGCATCAAAACGTAAAGTC---CTGCAGCCAGAGCTAACCACTACCAAC
-- end --

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Statistics of barcoding coverage: Pelecanus occidentalis

Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLDS) Stats
Public Records: 4
Specimens with Barcodes: 5
Species With Barcodes: 1
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Conservation

Conservation Status

IUCN Red List Assessment


Red List Category
LC
Least Concern

Red List Criteria

Version
3.1

Year Assessed
2012

Assessor/s
BirdLife International

Reviewer/s
Butchart, S. & Symes, A.

Contributor/s

Justification
This species has an extremely large range, and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the range size criterion (Extent of Occurrence <20,000 km2 combined with a declining or fluctuating range size, habitat extent/quality, or population size and a small number of locations or severe fragmentation). The population trend appears to be increasing, and hence the species does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population trend criterion (>30% decline over ten years or three generations). The population size is very large, and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population size criterion (<10,000 mature individuals with a continuing decline estimated to be >10% in ten years or three generations, or with a specified population structure). For these reasons the species is evaluated as Least Concern.

History
  • Least Concern (LC)
  • Least Concern (LC)
  • Not Recognized (NR)
  • Least Concern (LC)
  • Least Concern (LC)
  • Least Concern (LC)
  • Least Concern (LC)