Brown pelican

Natural History

This majestic bird has a distinctive large pouch that hangs from the lower half of its long, straight bill. Brown pelicans are gray-brown, with dark wings and white heads with a yellowish crown. Since this bird often sits on breakwaters, jetties and wharf pilings, you might be lucky enough to get a close-up view of its yellow eyes, black legs and black, webbed feet. 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 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. Airflow around their wings reduces drag.

Marine birds drink seawater 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. Hooks at the tip of a pelican's bill help hold the squirming fish.