Brown pelican
Two brown pelicans flying Two brown pelicans

Animal Facts

  • Scientific Name

    Pelecanus occidentalis

  • Animal Type

    Birds

  • Habitat

    Coastal Waters

  • Diet

    schooling fish close to the water's edge, including anchovies, herring, Pacific mackerel, minnows and sardines

  • Size

    wingspan up to 7 feet (2.1 m); weighs up to 10 pounds (4.5 kg)

  • Relatives

    tropicbirds, frigatebirds, gannets and cormorants; Order: Pelecaniformes; Family: Pelecanidae

  • Habitat

    Coastal Waters

  • Range

    Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf Coast of North, South and Central America

    Brown pelican range map

Natural History

This majestic bird has a distinctive large pouch that hangs from the lower half of its long, straight bill. These gregarious birds usually fly in flocks. Their flight pattern may be a straight line or a V-formation, with their powerful wing strokes alternating with short glides. With their keen eyesight, brown pelicans can spot fish from heights of 20 to 60 feet. They dive steeply, with their heads pointed straight down and their wings folded back—ending with an awkward plunge into the water. Air sacs under their skin cushion the blow and bring the birds up to the surface.


In Monterey Bay

Brown pelicans on the Pacific coast breed in colonies from Baja to the Channel Islands off California in the winter and spring and then disperse north. While you can see some birds here all year around, the majority arrive in Monterey Bay in the summer and remain through early fall. 

You can often spot them flying just off shore, or sitting on breakwaters, jetties and wharf pilings where you might be lucky enough to get a close-up view of their yellow eyes, black legs and black, webbed feet. In the late fall, when males begin to display their breeding plumage, their usually brown throat pouches become a vibrant red.


Conservation

In the past, the use of DDT as a pesticide greatly affected the calcium metabolism of pelicans, causing their eggshells to become thinner and more fragile. Their population decreased so dramatically that in 1970, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the brown pelican as endangered. In 1972, the Environmental Protection Agency banned the use of DDT in the United States. While the brown pelican population on the Atlantic coast of the United States has fully recovered, brown pelicans on the Pacific coast remain on the Endangered Species List. About 4,500 to 5,000 breeding pairs remain in California.

Human activities, such as destruction and disturbance of breeding and resting habitats, still threaten these birds. Abandoned fishing lines and hooks can entangle and injure pelicans, which often rest near shore. When you fish, please make sure you don't leave fishing lines or hooks behind; if you find abandoned fishing line on the beach or wharf, be sure to throw it away.


Cool Facts

  • Brown pelicans breed in colonies on the Channel Islands off California. Male pelicans gather materials while females build the nests—which typically begin with a scrape or mound on the ground. The birds line their nest with soil, feathers or vegetation.
  • Pelicans often fly in lines close to the water's surface. This employs something pilots call the "ground effect" to make flying almost effortless.
  • Marine birds drink sea water and remove the salt from their systems by using special salt-extracting glands. These glands are located on the outside of their skulls, above their eyes, but each species of bird has a different drip arrangement. In the case of a brown pelican, salty fluids flow down grooves on the outside of its bill and drip off the end.
  • A pelican's bill can hold three times more than its stomach can—nearly three gallons of fish and water. At the end of a successful dive, the pelican drains the water from its pouch and swallows the whole fish head first—after turning it if necessary. A large hook at the tip of a pelican's bill helps hold the squirming fish.


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