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)
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.
occurs (regularly, as a native taxon) in multiple nations
Regularity: Regularly occurring
Type of Residency: Transient
Regularity: Regularly occurring
Type of Residency: Year-round
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).
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.
Length: 122 cm
Weight: 3636 grams
Differs from the white pelican (PELECANUS ERYTHRORHYNCHOS) in being mainly grayish brown overall instead of white.
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.
Habitat and Ecology
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.
Water temperature and chemistry ranges based on 1054 samples.
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
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
Note: this information has not been validated. Check this *note*. Your feedback is most welcome.
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).
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.
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).
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.
- 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
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.
- 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
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.
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.
Populations fluctuate considerably from year to year and from place to place.
Life History and 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
Comments: Most activity diurnal, little during twilight.
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.
Status: wild: 43 (high) years.
Status: wild: 334 months.
Lifespan, longevity, and ageing
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.
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.
Evolution and Systematics
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)
Learn more about this functional adaptation.
- Fowler, ME; Miller, RE. 2003. Zoo and Wild Animal Medicine. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders Co.
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Pelecanus occidentalis
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.
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Download FASTA File
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Pelecanus occidentalis
Public Records: 4
Specimens with Barcodes: 5
Species With Barcodes: 1
The IUCN Red List classifies brown pelicans as a species of least concern and the US Federal list gives them no special status. In the 1950's and 1960's, DDT was used as a pesticide and subsequently was passed through the food chain up to brown pelicans. This bioaccumulation altered the brown pelicans' physiology, decreasing the egg shell strength and causing eggs to break during incubation. In 1968 a restocking effort took plan in Louisiana, lasting for several years until 1976. During this time period 767 nestlings, 8 to 11 weeks in age, were transported to Louisiana from Florida and 221 nested in the area in which they were released. Despite a die-off in 1975 of about 40% of the population due to Endrin contamination, the brown pelican reached historical population sizes by 1990. Brown pelican were listed as endangered in 1970 but DDT was not outlawed until 1972. In 1985, brown pelicans was downgraded to threatened and in 2009 the species was removed from the list completely. Human disturbance, fish hooks and lines, oil spills, and human activities such as hunting, egging, and trapping threaten brown pelican populations. Annual surveys have found stable to increasing population size along with nesting success being recorded as having a high success rate. Pelicans are adjusted to boom-bust cycles and have adapted to hurricanes and El Nino effects which lower food availability. However, the long-term effects of the Gulf oil spill of 2010 are still unknown. During the oil spill, pelicans were the hardest hit, comprising 58% of bird mortality and injuries.
US Migratory Bird Act: no special status
US Federal List: no special status
CITES: no special status
State of Michigan List: no special status
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: least concern
- Nesbitt, S., L. Williams, L. McNease, T. Joanen. 1978. Brown Pelican Restocking Efforts in Louisiana. The Wilson Bulletin, 90/3: 443-445.
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
National NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded National Status Rank: NNA - Not Applicable
Rounded National Status Rank: N4B,N4N : N4B: Apparently Secure - Breeding, N4N: Apparently Secure - Nonbreeding
NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded Global Status Rank: G4 - Apparently Secure
Reasons: Large range, extending from North America to South America; most U.S. populations have been stable or increasing in recent years; population status in much of Central and South America is not well known, but the species may be moderately to highly threatened throughout much of the range, mainly as a result of environmental pollution and disturbance by humans; subject to unexplained population fluctuations even where doing well overall.
Other Considerations: Listed Endangered by USFWS in entire range except for Atlantic coast of U.S., Florida and Alabama, where it was de-listed 2/4/85.
On a global scale, brown pelicans are doing just fine. The IUCN lists their status as being that of Least Concern, which means the world is in no danger of losing brown pelicans anytime soon. It is the particular populations that live in the Gulf of Mexico whose habitat has been affected as a result of the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon deep sea oil rig and the resulting oil spill (Allen-Mills, 2010).
This isn't the first time brown pelicans are getting worldwide sympathy. In the 19th century pelicans were hunted for their plumage, and few habitats were safe from hunters. In 1903 U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt formed the country's first wildlife refuge for birds. It was only a five-acre patch of land on Pelican Island in Florida, but it was the first step toward what is now the National Wildlife Refuge System, which today covers more than 95 million acres total (Benzel, 2010).
While protected areas can keep hunters out, they cannot block the entry of pesticides and other environmental contaminants. The widespread use of DDT was especially harmful the vulnerable shells of brown pelican eggs and highly detrimental to the brown pelican populations in North America. It was only after the U.S. banned the use of DDT in 1972 that their numbers began to pick up (Ehrlich, 1988).
It may only be a certain subspecies of the brown pelican that has been affected, but the situation still concerns scientists. Ornithologists say they are not sure whether Louisiana's brown pelicans will survive this latest environmental disaster (Drash, 2010).
Global Short Term Trend: Increase of 10-25% to decline of 30%
Comments: Within the U.S., the eastern population (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North and South Carolina) appears to be stable and even increasing. Recent increase in North Carolina is attributed to expansion of South Carolina population, aided by creation of dredge spoil islands that provide additional nesting habitat. Gulf Coast populations are increasing steadily, but those in the U.S. Caribbean have declined over the last 10 years (J. Collazo, pers. obs.). Contaminant levels for both populations, however, are below the threshold found to induce reproductive failure [e.g., 4-5 parts per million (ppm) for DDE]. Colonies on the San Lorenzo Islands in the Gulf of California contained about 32,000 birds in 1970 but had decreased to approximately 8,200 in 1977. However, southern populations of subspecies CALIFORNICUS, occurring in Mexico, evidently are stable (D. W. Anderson, pers. comm.). U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (1990) categorized the status of CALIFORNICUS as "stable." Data are needed on Central and South American populations where organochlorine pesticide use is still allowed. Aside from large, reproductively viable populations in Panama and Mexico, population status in Central and South America is poorly known (Crivelli and Anderson 1984, Risebrough and Schreiber 1972, Halewyn and Norton 1984, Guzman and Schreiber 1987).
Degree of Threat: Medium
Comments: This species was nearly extirpated from North America between the late 1950s and early 1970s when pesticides entering the marine food web caused major population declines. The pesticide endrin killed pelicans directly, whereas DDT reduced reproductive success by causing pelicans to lay thin-shelled eggs that broke during incubation.
Populations are extremely vulnerable to chemical/pesticide pollution, which can result in eggshell thinning (reproductive failure) (Anderson and Hickey 1970, Blus et al. 1974), and presumably lethal poisoning. Populations (especially in California, Texas, and Louisiana) were decimated in the U.S. by pesticides (DDT and related compounds) in the 1950s and 60s. In the U.S. Caribbean, 7% of the pelican population in 1982 died as a result of fish die-offs in connection to chemical runoffs (e.g., organophosphates). Other threats include disturbance of nesting birds by humans (reduces reproductive success), declining fish (food) populations, increased turbidity (e.g., from dredging, resulting in reduced visibility of prey); oil and other chemical spills, entanglement in fishing gear, shooting, extreme weather conditions (freezing of soft parts, destruction of nest sites by hurricanes, storms), disease, and parasitism.
Human disturbance (e.g., recreational boating, poaching) not only disrupts reproductive success (Anderson and Keith 1980; Schreiber 1979), but may affect distribution patterns and age structure of pelicans using roosting sites during the nonbreeding season (Jaques and Anderson 1987). Habitat degradation affects both roosting and nesting patterns. On the Gulf Coast, nesting efforts have failed because nesting sites are susceptible to flooding as a result of continued site erosion (McNease et al. 1992).
Subspecies CALIFORNICUS: Declined greatly due to effects of pesticide contamination in the 1950s and 1960s. In Southern California threatened by pollution (primarily pesticides in food fishes, also oil), human disturbance of breeding colonies, loss or serious decline of food fishes due to human over-fishing (e.g., of anchovies); loss of post-breeding roost sites, fishing gear entanglement, and bacterial infection resulting from overcrowding at fish disposal areas in harbors (California Department of Fish and Game 1990). Human disturbance has decreased nesting success on Islas los Coronados, Mexico (Anderson 1988) and virtually extirpated the breeding colony (California Department of Fish and Game 1990). Southern populations in Mexico have faced problems associated with human disturbance and overexploitation of prey (e.g., sardines), yet they remain stable (D. W. Anderson, pers. comm.).
U.S. Caribbean: contaminant levels and availability of nesting habitat are not limiting or affecting the population at present. See Williams et al. (1992) for an account of die-offs that have been observed in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands; apparent causes include pesticides, botulism, and unknown factors. In the tropics and subtropics, coastal development and incidental take (e.g., artisanal fishing) is a problem and represents a major threat to the continued availability of mangrove habitat. Close to 91% of all roosting and nesting habitat utilized in the U.S. Caribbean are fringe and overwash mangroves. Fringe mangroves are particularly important to the feeding ecology of pelicans because they provide nutrient inputs and cover for the associated marine community, including food fishes. Both mangrove types are very sensitive to human-created stress such as deforestation, filling and extractions in the salt flats, sedimentation, and oil spills (Cintron and Schaeffer-Novelli 1983). Siltation caused by erosion could be adversely impacting coral reefs, seagrass beds, and mangrove forests (Cintron and Schaeffer-Novelli 1983, Velazco et al. 1985).
Restoration Potential: Generally have responded well to restoration efforts. Recovery plans for the U.S. populations have been implemented and selected problematic organochlorines (e.g., DDT) have been banned/regulated. These actions enabled population recovery and led to federal delisting of populations along the Atlantic coast and in Florida and Alabama. Populations along the U.S. west coast have rebounded strongly and have been recommended for downgrading (from endangered to threatened) (D.W. Anderson, pers. comm.). Gulf coast populations are exhibiting increasing trends and successful reintroduction efforts continue (McNease et al. 1992). However, restoration actions implemented so far have not resulted in the recovery of populations in the U.S. Caribbean, where foraging habitat quality may be a problem. In many instances, habitat can be enhanced or created (e.g., spoil islands, jetties). These habitats provide important habitat for both roosting and nesting populations (Jaques and Anderson 1987, Parnell and Shields 1990).
Preserve Selection and Design Considerations: Elements for preserve selection and design include vegetation characteristics, size of island, distance to mainland, distance to nearest human disturbance, availability of sand bars, use patterns in the vicinity of the site in question, and historical use of the site (Collazo and Klaas 1986, Hingtgen and Mulholland 1983, Schreiber 1979, Schreiber and Schreiber 1982). Schreiber and Schreiber (1982) stressed the need to protect not only nesting sites but also loafing and roosting sites because these sites could eventually become nesting sites. They also suggested that sand bars are important to juveniles lacking sufficient skills to land on trees. Traditional sites deserve special protection because they tend to be re-used for many years.
In the tropics and subtropics, mangroves constitute an important nesting and roosting substrate. In the U.S. Caribbean, structural suitability of mangrove sites can be assessed by using a linear classification rule (discriminant function analysis) based on structural variables of roosting and nesting sites (Collazo and Klaas 1985).
Human disturbance is a critical factor in the suitability of roosting and nesting habitat (Schreiber 1979, Schreiber and Schreiber 1982). Precise figures of undesirable levels of human disturbance are difficult to assess a priori. Available information suggests that human disturbance should not be allowed within 100 to 600 meters of roosting or nesting site (Jaques and Anderson 1987, Anderson 1988, Collazo and Klaas 1986, Schreiber 1979). Variability in threshold distances is attributed to the levels of disturbance to which pelicans previously have been exposed. In some cases (e.g., U.S. Caribbean, California), high levels of human disturbance is tolerated because there is vertical separation between birds (e.g., roosting/nesting on a cliff) and the source of disturbance. In those cases, efforts should be made to avoid providing access to humans (e.g., recreational) (Jaques and Anderson 1987).
Management Requirements: The recovery plans for each population (i.e., California, Eastern, Caribbean) outline recovery and conservation actions required to delist the species. See also California Department of Fish and Game (1990) for information on management actions and needs for the Southern California Bight population.
Environmental contaminants are not considered limiting factors for any population at present. Recovery and management efforts for those populations still designated as endangered are more focused on habitat degradation, human disturbance, and maintaining consistent monitoring efforts (e.g., numbers, productivity). Human disturbance (e.g., recreational boating, poaching) disrupts pelican reproductive output. Disturbance is not only detrimental to nesting efforts, but it may affect distribution patterns and age structure of pelicans using roosting sites during the nonreproductive season (Jaques and Anderson 1987).
Management Research Needs: Management/research needs are outlined in the recovery plans. Needs for California and Gulf populations are focused on monitoring efforts. For the California population, there is a need to revise the operational definition for a recovered population such that it is based on cumulative information (D.W. Anderson, pers. comm.).
In the U.S. Caribbean, recovery efforts should be directed to monitoring breeding productivity and evaluating foraging habitat quality. It is necessary to partition the potential effects of foraging habitat degradation from oceanic influences. The following specific research needs have been identified as a result of the ongoing status review of the species sponsored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service:
1) Productivity: There is a need to obtain accurate estimates of breeding productivity (i.e., chicks per breeding pair). These estimates, as in the early 1980s, should be obtained from as many colonies as possible.
2) Food availability: This is perhaps the underlying factor affecting pelicans in the U.S. Caribbean at present. While difficult to tackle, there is a need to gain insights on the quality and quantity of resources by focusing on the following: a) monitor prey levels at selected sites--there are baseline data from these sites for comparative purposes; b) monitor prey species composition and size frequency brought to young by adults at selected colonies--this would be considered an index of present conditions vs. early 1980s (there are baseline data on these metrics); ancillary data could consist of monitoring where pelicans are going to get their prey and develop an index to evaluate prey availability at feeding sites; c) monitor "bait" fish landings in Puerto Rico--this is a broad category including anchovies and sardines; both groups, however, are consumed by pelicans; data should be useful to test for trends (after applying correction factors) and as an index of general food availability; data could be broken down by point of origin (e.g., fishermen village).
3) Habitat degradation: Research available literature on causes and effects of siltation on tropical coastal ecosystems, and identify any ongoing work documenting and/or monitoring such effects.
4) Movements: There is a possibility that dispersal patterns of U.S. Virgin Islands birds may have changed. In the 1980s, 47% of the juveniles banded in the U.S. Virgin Islands were recorded in Puerto Rico. A decrease in the proportion of birds moving to Puerto Rico coupled with lower productivity in the U.S. Virgin Islands could help explain the low numbers recorded during recent surveys (i.e., 1993-95).
Biological Research Needs: Continued research needed range wide on the effects of poisons and pesticides, disease, and parasitism in the population. Life history study of this long-lived species is needed to determine better habitat requirements, limiting factors, and natural mortality.
Global Protection: Many to very many (13 to >40) occurrences appropriately protected and managed
Comments: Many occurrences are protected in wildlife refuges, national parks, National Audubon Society sanctuaries, and state-owned lands within the U.S. Unknown outside U.S.
Needs: Stop forever all forms of pollution and degradation of the marine environment. Protect/preserve breeding colonies and roosting/loafing areas; humans must remain 100 - 600 > 100 meters away; will require education and maybe surveillance. Ensure the availability of undisturbed, non-occupied potential breeding/roosting/loafing sites; pelicans move for known and unknown reasons, and habitat must be available to accommodate all aspects of their needs. Educate fishermen to remove hooks, lines, etc. from birds (and the environment), and stress that pelicans do not pose a threat to their livelihood.
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
Brown pelicans often specialize on schools of small fish. Although these fish are not directly beneficial to fisherman, they make up the diet of commercially important fish.
Humans benefit from pelicans by hunting, egging, and trapping. Their meat and eggs are used for food and their feathers have commercial value. A charismatic species, they are also valuable for research and educational purposes.
Positive Impacts: food ; body parts are source of valuable material; research and education
Stewardship Overview: Management concerns in the United States historically focused on environmental contaminants. Environmental contaminants, particularly DDT and its metabolites, were the most important factors threatening the continued existence of brown pelicans in the 1960s and 1970s. Since the banning of DDT in 1972 and regulation of the use and disposal of other organochlorines, pelicans have rebounded to historical levels or are increasing. In the past, potential conflicts with commercial fishing were an important factor affecting recovery potential (e.g., California populations). At present, however, exploitation of selected fisheries (e.g., anchovies) is not economically viable (D.W. Anderson, pers. comm.). Threats to essential habitats, human disturbance, and the need for continued population monitoring are molding current recovery and management efforts.
Species Impact: As many other colonial birds, pelicans can cause vegetation defoliation or death as excrement builds up over time, assuming the site does not have "flushing or cleansing" attributes (e.g., mangrove islet). Despite the apparent damage of these sites, though, they should be afforded protection because pelicans tend to re-use traditional or old sites (Schreiber and Schreiber 1982).
The brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) is a small pelican found in the Americas. It is one of the best known and most prominent birds found in the coastal areas of the southern and western United States. It is one of only three pelican species found in the Western Hemisphere. The brown pelican is one of the only two pelican species which feeds by diving into the water.
The brown pelican 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 (6.1 to 12.1 lb) and has a wingspan from 1.83 to 2.5 m (6.0 to 8.2 ft). Through most of its range, the brown pelican is an unmistakable bird. Like all pelicans, this species has a very large bill, 28 to 34.8 cm (11.0 to 13.7 in) long in this case, with a gular pouch on the bottom for draining water when it scoops out prey. The head is white but often gets a yellowish wash in adult birds. The bill is grayish overall in most birds, though breeding birds become reddish on the underside of the throat. The back, rump, and tail are streaked with gray and dark brown, sometimes with a rusty hue. In adult pelicans, the breast and belly are a blackish-brown and the legs and feet are black. The juvenile is similar but has a brownish-gray neck and white underparts.
This bird is readily distinguished from the American white pelican by its non-white plumage, smaller size and its habit of diving for fish from the air, as opposed to co-operative fishing from the surface. The Peruvian pelican, previously considered a subspecies of brown pelican, is now considered to be a separate species. It has very similar plumage to the brown, but it is noticeably larger. The brown and Peruvian pelicans may overlap in some areas along the Pacific coast of South America.
Range and habitats
The brown pelican lives on both coasts in the Americas. On the Atlantic Coast and Gulf Coast they distribute from Nova Scotia to Venezuela, and to the mouth of the Amazon River. Along the Atlantic, they are usually less common north of the Carolinas, with a considerable population in much of the Gulf of Mexico. On the Pacific Ocean they are found from British Columbia to south central Chile, and including the Galapagos Islands. In the Pacific, they are fairly common along the coast of California, Mexico and Central America. 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. They are also common in Mangrove swamps.
Pelicans are very gregarious birds; they live in flocks of both sexes throughout the year. They are exceptionally buoyant due to the internal air sacks beneath their skin and in their bones, and as graceful in the air as they are clumsy on land. In level flight, pelicans fly in groups, with their heads held back on their shoulders, the bills resting on their folded necks. They may fly in a "V", but usually in regular lines or single file, often low over the water's surface.
When foraging, they dive bill-first like a kingfisher often submerging completely below the surface momentarily as they snap up prey. Upon surfacing they spill the water from the throat pouch before swallowing their catch. Only the Peruvian pelican shares this active foraging style, while other pelicans forage more inactively by scooping up corralled fish while swimming on the surface of the water. Juvenile brown pelicans have been observed foraging in the surface-swimming matter of other pelicans. They are occasional targets of kleptoparasitism by other fish-eating birds such as gulls, skuas and frigatebirds.
Although the brown pelican eats mostly fish, an occasional amphibian or crustacean may supplement the diet. Menhaden may locally account for 90–95% of their food. The anchovy supply is particularly important to the nesting success of the brown pelican. However, their preferred prey are usually not commercially fished species. Other fish preyed on with some regularity can include pigfish, pinfish, herring, sheepshead, silversides, mullet, and minnows, and they sometimes eat crustaceans, usually prawns. A single adult pelican can eat up to 1.8 kg (4.0 lb) each day. Today, in many coastal areas, brown pelicans will loaf around fishing ports and piers in hopes of being fed or stealing scraps of fish, especially if conditioned to do.
These birds nest in colonies, often on islands and/or in mangroves. Male pelicans pick out the nesting sites and perform an "advertising" display which attracts the females. Once a pair forms a bond, overt communication between them is minimal. Pelican nesting peaks during March and April; nests are in colonies either in trees, bushes, or on the ground (the latter usually on islands that terrestrial predators cannot access). Those placed in trees are rather flimsy and made of reeds, grasses, straw, and sticks; if on the ground, nests consist of a shallow scrape lined with feathers and a rim of soil built 10–26 cm (3.9–10.2 in) above the ground. Their young are hatched in broods of about 2–3 and are naked and helpless upon hatching. Incubation is roughly 28–30 days. Both parents actively care for the young. Young pelicans start to walk independently at about 35 days old in ground nest, but do not leave treetop nests for up to 68–88 days. In the 8–10 month period they are cared for, the nestling pelicans are fed by regurgitation around 70 kg (150 lb) of fish. The younger birds reach sexual maturity (and full adult plumage) at anywhere from two to five years of age. Predation is occasional at colonies and predators of eggs, young and the rare adult pelicans can include gulls, raptors (especially bald eagles), foxes, skunks and feral cats. In areas where their ranges' overlap, American alligators may sometimes pick off fledging pelicans. Predation is likely reduced if the colony is on an island. Like all pelicans, brown pelicans are highly sensitive to disturbances by humans (often tourists or fishermen) at their nest and may abandon their nest if stressed as such. Due to their size, the non-nesting adults are rarely predated.
Threats and conservation
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 too thin and incapable of supporting the embryo to maturity. As a result of this research, DDT usage was eliminated in Florida, followed by the rest of the US. Along with the American white pelican, the brown pelican is protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List has listed the brown pelican as Least Concern since 1988. The US government imposed a ban on the use of DDT in 1972. Since then, the population of brown pelican has increased. Current estimates place the population at 650,000 individuals.
Depictions in culture
The brown pelican is now a staple of crowded coastal regions and is tolerated to varying degrees by fishermen and boatmen. It is the national bird of Barbados, Saint Kitts and Nevis and the Turks and Caicos Islands, and state bird of Louisiana. It is also one of the mascots of Tulane University and is on the seals of Tulane University, Louisiana State University and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. It is also on the Crest of the University of the West Indies. A brown pelican (voiced by Geoffrey Rush in an Australian accent) was illustrated as a friendly, virtuous talking character named Nigel in the animated children's film Finding Nemo, set in the Pacific Ocean near Australia, although only the white Australian pelican is known to occur in that country.
In 1902, the pelican was made a part of the official Louisiana seal and, 10 years later, in 1912, the pelican and her young adorned the Flag of Louisiana as well. One of Louisiana's nicknames is "The Pelican State." In 1958, the pelican was made the official state bird of Louisiana. This act was amended on July 26, 1966 to specifically designate the brown pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis.
- BirdLife International (2012). "Pelecanus occidentalis". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 26 November 2013.
- del Hoyo, J; Elliot, A; Sargatal, J (1996). Handbook of the Birds of the World 3. Barcelona: Lynx Edicions. ISBN 84-87334-20-2.
- Brown Pelican – Pelecanus occidentalis (Report). U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2009-11. Retrieved 2011-09-20. Check date values in:
- Dan A. Tallman, David L. Swanson, Jeffrey S. Palmer (2002). Birds of South Dakota (Hardcover ed.). Aberdeen, South dakota: Midstates/Quality Quick Print. p. 11. ISBN 0-929918-06-1.
- Brown Pelican. Smithsonian's Nationall Zoological Park
- Anderson, Mais & Kelly (1980) "Brown Pelicans as anchovy stock indicators and their relationships to commercial fishing" CalCOFI Reports XXI p. 55 "Pelican [i.e. the brown pelican] reproductive rate (fledging success = F‘) depends largely on levels of anchovy abundance and availability. The diet of breeding pelicans from 1972 to 1979 was 92% anchovies (N = 2195; Gress et al. in preparation). At Anacapa Island, breeding pelicans feed mostly in the Santa Barbara Channel later in the breeding season, but their feeding areas are variable due to mobility of their prey, anchovies (Gress et al. in preparation). Less is known of pelicans nesting at Coronado Norte, but a similar situation involving feeding areas is likely."
- ADW: Pelecanus occidentalis: INFORMATION. Animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu. Retrieved on 2014-04-01.
- Brown Pelican. The Animal Files. Retrieved on 2014-04-01.
- Brown Pelican. Smithsonian Marine Station at Fort Pierce (2010-09-28).
- Cappiello, Dina (November 12, 2009). "Brown pelicans off endangered species list". Associated Press.
Names and Taxonomy
Comments: Formerly included P. thagus Molina, 1782 [Peruvian Pelican], now considered distinct (e.g. Sibley and Monroe 1990, Ridgely and Greenfield 2001) on the basis of much larger size, differences in color of plumage and soft parts (Wetmore 1945), and absence of interbreeding (Banks et al., 2008).