Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis)


Class: Aves
Order: Pelicaniformes
Family:    Pelecanidae
Size:    Length: 44 to 54 inches (112 to 137 cm)   Wingspan: 72 to 84 inches (1.8 to 2.1 m)
Weight: 5 to 10 pounds (2.3 to 4.5 kg)
Diet: Fish, including menhaden, herring, pigfish, minnows, smelt, silversides, mullet and prawns
Distribution: Coasts of Mexico, Southern USA and northern South America
Young:  2 to 3 chicks, once a year
Animal Predators:  None
IUCN Status: No special status
Terms: Young: Chick
Lifespan: Up to and beyond 30 years



·      Brown pelicans are the smallest members of the pelican family (there are seven species).

·      The brown pelican is also called American brown pelican or Common pelican.

·      President Theodore Roosevelt designated Florida’s Pelican Island a national wildlife refuge in 1903.

·      Sea gulls sometimes sit right on the fish-filled bill of pelicans, hoping to steal a fish when pelicans open their mouths to eat.



Generally dark and bulky, both male and female brown pelicans are similar in plumage. Their long neck is white with a pale yellow wash on the crown of the head. They have a long, greyish bill and their back, rump, and tail are streaked with grey and dark brown.  Brown pelicans have a blackish-brown breast and belly, pale yellow eyes and black legs and feet. Males are slightly larger than females. 



Brown pelicans live along U.S.A.’s Gulf Coast, as well as along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, from the southern United States along Mexico to the northwest tip of South America and the Galapagos Islands.


Feeding Habits

Brown pelicans are graceful flyers, and they soar over the water, searching for prey. When pelicans spot something, they dive straight down into the water from heights of up to 60 feet (27 m), capturing the food in their large bills. Another way pelicans catch fish is by flying low along the water in groups while flapping their wings, which forces fish to gather in groups under the water. The birds then open their mouths and scoop up several of the fish. Pelicans have extremely long bills with an expandable pouch in which they can hold food until they drain away the water that has gotten into the bill, before they eat their catch. The pouch expands enough to be able to hold three gallons, which is up to three times more than the bird can fit into its stomach. Adult brown pelicans eat three to four pounds (1.4 to 2 kg) of fish per day. 



Males pick out a nest site in early spring and then set out to attract a female. Once a pair is formed, the male brings sticks and grass to the female, who builds the nest on the ground or in a tree within a large pelican colony. The parents take turns incubating the eggs for approximately one month until the eggs hatch. The chicks are born without feathers, and their eyes are closed. Both parents bring food to them. The first chick to hatch is the first egg laid and, since this chick is larger than its siblings when they hatch, it usually receives more food from its parents. The chicks soon grow a soft downy coat, and those in ground nests may begin exploring outside of the nest approximately one month after hatching. Tree-nest pelican chicks do not leave the nest for more than two months, until they are ready to fly.  Brown pelicans mature between three and four years of age.



Pelicans are social birds that live in large flocks made up of both males and females. Although they move awkwardly on land, they are strong swimmers, even when young.



Due to the widespread use of the pesticide DDT throughout the States, which damages eggs and reproductive capacity, the brown pelican population decreased drastically from 1940 to 1972. Since DDT has been banned, brown pelican populations have increased, but they remain on the United States’ list of federally endangered animals.



Brown Pelican Wildlife Fact File, IM Pub, US