The brown pelican (
Pelecanus occidentalis) is a North American bird of
the pelican family, Pelecanidae. It is one of three pelican species
found in the Americas and one of only two that feeds by diving in
water. It is found on the Atlantic Coast from
Nova Scotia to the mouth
of the Amazon River, and along the Pacific Coast from British Columbia
to northern Chile, including the Galapagos Islands. The nominate
subspecies in its breeding plumage has a white head with a yellowish
wash on the crown. The nape and neck are dark maroon–brown. The
upper sides of the neck have white lines along the base of the gular
pouch, and the lower foreneck has a pale yellowish patch. The male and
female are similar, but the female is slightly smaller. The
non-breeding adult has a white head and neck. The pink skin around the
eyes becomes dull and gray in the non-breeding season. It lacks any
red hue, and the pouch is strongly olivaceous ochre tinged and the
legs are olivaceous gray to blackish-gray.
The brown pelican mainly feeds on fish, but occasionally eats
amphibians, crustaceans, and the eggs and nestlings of birds. It nests
in colonies in secluded areas, often on islands, vegetated land among
sand dunes, thickets of shrubs and trees, and mangroves. Females lay
two to three oval, chalky white eggs. Incubation takes 28 to 30 days
with both sexes sharing duties. The newly hatched chicks are pink,
turning gray or black within 4 to 14 days. It takes about 63 days for
chicks to fledge. Six to nine weeks after hatching, the juveniles
leave the nest, and gather into small groups known as pods.
The brown pelican is the national bird of Saint Martin, Barbados,
Saint Kitts and Nevis, and the Turks and Caicos Islands, and the
official state bird of Louisiana. In 1902, it was made a part of the
Louisiana seal and, in 1912, a pelican and her young became
part of the
Flag of Louisiana
Flag of Louisiana as well. It has been rated as a species
of least concern by the International Union for Conservation of
Nature. It was listed under the United States Endangered
from 1970 to 2009, as pesticides like dieldrin and
DDT threatened its
future in the southeastern United States and California. In 1972, the
DDT was banned in Florida, followed by the rest of the United
States. Since then, the brown pelican's population has increased. In
Theodore Roosevelt set aside the first National Wildlife Refuge,
Pelican Island, in order to protect the species from
3 Distribution and habitat
4.3 Predators and parasites
5 Relationship with humans
5.1 Depictions in culture
5.2 Status and conservation
8 External links
The brown pelican was described by Swedish zoologist
Carl Linnaeus in
the 1766 12th edition of his Systema Naturae, where it was given the
binomial name of
Pelecanus occidentalis. It belongs to the New
World clade of the genus Pelecanus.
There are five recognized subspecies of the brown
P. o. californicus (Ridgway, 1884) – This subspecies
breeds on the Pacific coast of
California and Baja California, and
south to Jalisco. Its non-breeding range extends north along the
Pacific coast to British Columbia, and south to Guatemala. It is
rarely found in El Salvador.
P. o. carolinensis (Gmelin, 1789) – This subspecies breeds
in the eastern United States from
Maryland south along the Atlantic,
Gulf, and Caribbean coasts and south to Honduras and its Pacific
coasts, Costa Rica, and Panama. Its non-breeding range is from
southern New York to Venezuela.
P. o. occidentalis (Linnaeus, 1766) – This subspecies
breeds in the Greater and Lesser Antilles, the Bahamas, and along the
Caribbean coast of the West Indies, Colombia, and Venezuela, up to
Trinidad and Tobago.
P. o. murphyi (Wetmore, 1945) – This species is found from
western Colombia to Ecuador, and is a non-breeding visitor to northern
P. o. urinator (Wetmore, 1945) – This subspecies is found
on the Galapagos Islands.
The brown pelican is part of a clade that includes the Peruvian
pelican (P. thagus) and the
American white pelican
American white pelican (P.
Peruvian pelican was previously treated as a
subspecies of the brown pelican, but is now considered a separate
species on the basis of its much greater size (approximately double
the weight of the brown pelican), differences in bill color and
plumage, and a lack of hybridization between the forms despite a large
range overlap. In contrast, hybridization between brown and white
pelicans is possible.
James L. Peters separated the
American white pelican
American white pelican and the
brown pelican (including the Peruvian pelican) into monospecific
subgenera. This separation was also supported by
Jean Dorst and Raoul
J. Mougin in 1979. The spot-billed pelican and the pink-backed pelican
were considered to be sister species by Andrew Elliott in 1992 and
Joseph B. Nelson in 2005, and the divergence between the brown and the
Peruvian pelicans was found to be the most, in the pelican family. In
Paul Johnsgard hypothesized that the pelicans derived from a
south Asian or African ancestor, and spread through northern Asia and
Australia before finally coming to North America. This hypothesis
would imply that, unless the brown pelican and the American white
pelican resulted from multiple invasions of North America, they would
be sister taxa. However, trees derived from genetic data disagree. In
Charles Sibley and John E. Ahlquist's
Unweighted Pair Group Method with Arithmetic Mean
(UPGMA) tree based on
DNA–DNA hybridization data found that the
American white pelican, the pink-backed pelican, the great white
pelican, and the
Australian pelican were sister species, and the brown
pelican was the most divergent of all.
Brown pelican showing throat pouch
The brown pelican is the smallest of the eight pelican species but is
often one of the larger seabirds in their range nonetheless. It
measures 1 to 1.52 m (3 ft 3 in to 5 ft 0 in)
in length and has a wingspan of 2.03 to 2.28 m (6 ft
8 in to 7 ft 6 in). The weight of adults can range
anywhere from 2 to 5 kg (4.4 to 11.0 lb), about half the
weight of the other pelicans found in the Americas, the Peruvian and
American white pelicans. The average weight in
Florida of 47 females
was 3.17 kg (7.0 lb) while that of 56 males was 3.7 kg
(8.2 lb). Like all pelicans, it has a very long bill,
measuring 280 to 348 mm (11.0 to 13.7 in) in length.
The nominate subspecies in its breeding plumage has a white head with
a yellowish wash on the crown. The nape and neck are dark
maroon–brown. The upper sides of the neck have white lines along the
base of the gular pouch, and the lower foreneck has a pale yellowish
patch. The feathers at the center of the nape are elongated, forming
short, deep chestnut crest feathers. It has a silvery gray
mantle, scapulars, and upperwing coverts (feathers on the upper
side of the wings), with a brownish tinge. The lesser coverts have
dark bases, which gives the leading edge of the wing a streaky
appearance. The uppertail coverts (feathers above the tail) are
silvery white at the center, forming pale streaks. The median (between
the greater and the lesser coverts), primary (connected to the distal
forelimb), secondary (connected to the ulna), and greater coverts
(feathers of the outermost, largest, row of upperwing coverts) are
blackish, with the primaries having white shafts and the secondaries
having variable silver-gray fringes. The tertials (feathers arising in
the brachial region) are silver–gray with a brownish tinge. The
underwing has grayish-brown remiges with white shafts to the outer
primary feathers. The axillaries and covert feathers are dark, with a
broad, silver–gray central area. The tail is dark gray with a
variable silvery cast. The lower mandible is blackish, with a
greenish-black gular pouch at the bottom for draining water when
it scoops out prey. The breast and belly are dark, and the
legs and feet black. It has a grayish white bill tinged with brown
and intermixed with pale carmine spots. The crest is short and
pale reddish-brown in color. The back, rump, and tail are streaked
with gray and dark brown, sometimes with a rusty hue. The male and
female are similar, but the female is slightly smaller. It is
exceptionally buoyant due to the internal air sacks beneath its skin
and in its bones. It is as graceful in the air as it is clumsy on
The non-breeding adult has a white head and neck, and the pre-breeding
adult has a creamy yellow head. The pink skin around the eyes becomes
dull and gray in the non-breeding season. It lacks any red hue, and
the pouch is strongly olivaceous ochre tinged and the legs are
olivaceous gray to blackish-gray. It has pale blue to yellowish white
irides which become brown during the breeding season. During
courtship, the bill becomes pinkish red to pale orange, redder at the
tip, and the pouch is blackish. Later in the breeding season the bill
becomes pale ash-gray over most of the upper jaw and the basal third
of the mandible.
Juvenile at Bodega Harbor, California, United States
The juvenile is similar, but is grayish-brown overall and has paler
underparts. The head, neck, and thighs are dusky-brown, and the
abdomen is dull white. The plumage of the male is similar to a
fully adult female, although the male's head feathers are rather
rigid. The tail and flight feathers are browner than those of the
adult. It has short, brown upperwing coverts, which are often darker
on greater coverts, and dull brownish-gray underwing coverts with a
whitish band at the center. The irides are dark brown and the facial
skin is bluish. It has a gray bill which is horn-yellow to orange near
the tip, with a dark gray to pinkish-gray pouch. It acquires adult
plumage at over 3 years of age, when the feathers on the neck become
paler, the upperparts become striped, the greater upperwing and median
coverts become grayer, and the belly acquires dark spots.
The brown pelican is readily distinguished from the American white
pelican by its non-white plumage, smaller size, and habit of diving
for fish from the air, as opposed to co-operative fishing from the
surface. It and the
Peruvian pelican are the only true marine
The brown pelican produces a wide variety of harsh,
grunting sounds, such as a low-pitched hrrraa-hrra, during
displays. The adult also rarely emits a low croak, while young
Distribution and habitat
Adult in flight, Bodega Bay, California
The brown pelican lives on the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific coasts in
the Americas. On the Atlantic Coast, it is found from Nova Scotia
to the mouth of the Amazon River. Along the Pacific Coast, it is
British Columbia to south-central Chile, including the
Galapagos Islands. After nesting, North American birds move in
flocks further north along the coasts, returning to warmer waters for
winter. In the non-breeding season, it is found as far north as
Canada. It is a rare and irregular visitor south of the Piura in
Peru, where generally it is replaced by the Peruvian pelican, and can
occur as a non-breeding visitor south at least to Ica during El Niño
years. Small numbers of brown pelicans have been recorded from
Arica in far northern Chile. It is fairly common along the coast
of California, South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, the West
Indies, and many Caribbean islands as far south as Guyana. Along
the Gulf coast, it inhabits Alabama, Texas, Florida, Mississippi,
Louisiana, and Mexico.
The brown pelican is a strictly marine species, primarily inhabiting
marine subtidal, warm estuarine, and marine pelagic waters. It is
also found in mangrove swamps, and prefers shallow waters, especially
near salty bays and beaches. It avoids the open sea, seldom
venturing more than 20 miles from the coast. Some immature birds
may stray to inland freshwater lakes. Its range may also overlap with
Peruvian pelican in some areas along the Pacific coast of South
America. It roosts on rocks, water, rocky cliffs, piers, jetties, sand
beaches, and mudflats.
Most brown pelican populations are resident (non-migratory) and
dispersive (species moving from its birth site to its breeding site,
or its breeding site to another breeding site), although some
migration is observed, especially in the northern areas of its range,
but these movements are often erratic, depending on local conditions.
Southwards, they are vagrants (found outside its usual range) in
Tierra del Fuego. They have been recorded off the eastern coast of
Brazil, in Alagoas. Rare inland vagrants, generally caused by
El Niño phenomena, have been reported from the
Colombian Andes. They were first recorded in July 2009 at the
Interandean Valley where they remained for at least 161 days.
There are four records far inland in
Amazônia Legal along the Amazon
River and its tributaries.
The brown pelican is a very gregarious bird; it lives in flocks of
both sexes throughout the year. In level flight, brown pelicans
fly in groups, with their heads held back on their shoulders and their
bills resting on their folded necks. They may fly in a V
formation, but usually in regular lines or single file, often low over
the water's surface. To exclude water from the nasal passage, they
have narrower internal regions of the nostrils.
The brown pelican is a piscivore, primarily feeding on fish.
Menhaden may account for 90% of its diet, and the anchovy supply
is particularly important to the brown pelican's nesting success.
Other fish preyed on with some regularity includes pigfish, pinfish,
herring, sheepshead, silversides, mullets, sardines, and minnows.
Non-fish prey includes crustaceans, especially prawns, and it
occasionally feeds on amphibians and the eggs and nestlings of birds
(egrets, common murres and its own species).
As the brown pelican flies at a maximum height of 18 to 21 m (60
to 70 ft) above the ocean, it can spot schools of fish while
flying. When foraging, it dives bill-first like a kingfisher,
often submerging completely below the surface momentarily as it snaps
up prey. Upon surfacing, it spills the water from its throat pouch
before swallowing its catch. Only the
Peruvian pelican shares this
active foraging style (although that species never dives from such a
great height), while other pelicans forage more inactively by
scooping up corralled fish while swimming on the water surface. It is
an occasional target of kleptoparasitism by other fish-eating birds
such as gulls, skuas, and frigatebirds. They are capable of
drinking saline water due to the high capacity of its salt glands to
The brown pelican is a monogamous breeder within a breeding season,
but does not pair for life. Nesting season peaks during March and
April. The male chooses a nesting site and performs a display of
head movements to attract a female. At the proposed nest site,
major courtship displays such as head swaying, bowing, turning, and
upright (standing on its legs without any support) are performed by
both the sexes. They may also be accompanied by low raaa calls.
An adult brown pelican with a chick on a nest on Smith Island,
Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, USA
Once a pair forms a bond, overt communication between them is minimal.
It is a colonial species, with some colonies maintained for many
years. Probably owing to disturbance, tick infestation, or alteration
in food supply, colonies frequently shift. It nests in secluded
area, often on islands, vegetated spots among sand dunes, thickets of
shrubs and trees, and in mangroves, although sometimes on cliffs,
and less often in bushes or small trees. Nesting territories are
clumped, as individual territories may be at a distance of just
1 m (3.3 ft) from each other. They are usually built by
the female from reeds, leaves, pebbles, and sticks, and consist of
feather-lined impressions protected with a 10 to 25 cm (3.9 to
9.8 in) rim of soil and debris. They are usually found 0.9 to
3 m (3 to 10 ft) above the ground. Renesting may occur
if eggs are lost from the nest early in the breeding season.
There are usually two to three, or sometimes even four, oval eggs in a
clutch, and only one brood is raised per year. The egg is
chalky white, and can measure about 76 mm (3.0 in) in
length and 51 mm (2.0 in) in width. Incubation takes 28
to 30 days with both sexes sharing duties, keeping the eggs warm by
holding them on or under their webbed feet. It takes 28 to 30 days for
the eggs to hatch, and about 63 days to fledge. After that, the
juvenile leave the nest and gathers into small groups known as
pods. The newly hatched chicks are pink and weigh about 60 g
(0.13 lb). Within 4 to 14 days, they turn gray or
black. After that, they develop a coat of white, black or grayish
down. Fledging success may be as high as 100% for the first
hatched chick, 60% for the second chick, and just 6% for the third
The parents regurgitate predigested food for the young to feed upon
until they reach their fledging stage. After about 35 days, the
young venture out of the nest by walking. The young start flying
about 71 to 88 days after hatching. The adults remain with them
until some time afterwards and continue to feed them. In the 8- to
10-month period during which they are cared for, the nestling pelicans
are fed by regurgitated, partially digested food of around 70 kg
(150 lb) of fish. The young reach sexual maturity (and full
adult plumage) at anywhere from three to five years of age. A
brown pelican has been recorded to have lived for over 31 years in
Predators and parasites
Predation is occasional at colonies, and predators of eggs and young
(usually small nestlings are threatened but also occasionally up to
fledgling size depending on the size of the predator) can include
gulls, raptors (especially bald eagles), alligators, vultures, fish
crows, and corvids. Predation is likely reduced if
the colony is on an island. Predation on adult brown pelicans is
rarely reported, but cases where they have fallen prey to bald eagles
have been reported. Also, South American sea lions and unidentified
large sharks have been observed to prey on adult brown pelicans by
seizing them from beneath while the birds are sitting on ocean
waters. The invasive red imported fire ant is known to
predate on hatchlings. Like all pelicans, brown pelicans are
highly sensitive to disturbances by humans (including tourists or
fishermen) at their nests, and may even abandon their nests. Due
to their size, non-nesting adults are rarely predated. Brown
pelicans have several parasitic worms such as Petagiger,
Echinochasmus, Phagicola longus, Mesostephanus appendiculatoides,
Contracaecum multipapillatum, and Contracaecum bioccai, from its prey
diet of black mullets, white mullets, and other fish species.
Relationship with humans
The brown pelican is now a staple of crowded coastal regions and is
tolerated to varying degrees by fishermen and boaters. In the early
twentieth century, hunting was a major cause of its death, and people
still hunt adults for their feathers and collect eggs on the Caribbean
coasts, in Latin American, and occasionally in the United States, even
though it is protected under the Migratory
Bird Treaty Act of
Depictions in culture
Flag of Louisiana
Flag of Louisiana prominently displaying the brown pelican
The brown pelican is the national bird of Saint Martin, Barbados,
Saint Kitts and Nevis, and the Turks and Caicos Islands. In 1902,
it was made a part of the official
Louisiana seal and, in 1912, a
pelican and her young became part of the
Flag of Louisiana
Flag of Louisiana as
well. One of Louisiana's state nicknames is "The Pelican
State", and the brown pelican is the official state bird of
Louisiana. It is one of the mascots of Tulane University, present
on its seal, and is also present on the crest of the University of
the West Indies. The
National Basketball Association
National Basketball Association (NBA)'s New
Orleans Pelicans are named in the honor of the brown pelican.
In the 1993 film The
Pelican Brief, based on the novel of the same
name by John Grisham, a legal brief speculates that the assassins of
two supreme court justices were motivated by a desire to drill for oil
Louisiana marshland that was a habitat of the endangered brown
pelican. In the same year, Jurassic Park showed a flock of Brown
pelicans at the end of the film. In 1998, American conductor David
Woodard performed a requiem for a
California brown pelican on the
seaward limit of the berm of a beach where the animal had fallen.
In the 2003 Disney/
Pixar film Finding Nemo, a brown pelican (voiced by
Geoffrey Rush in an Australian accent) was illustrated as a friendly,
virtuous talking character named Nigel.[a]
Status and conservation
Aerial view of the
Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge
Since 1988, the brown pelican has been rated as least concern on
the IUCN Red List of Endangered species based on its large
range—greater than 20,000 km2 (7700 mi2)—and an
increasing population trend. The population size is also well
beyond the threshold for vulnerable species. The nominate race
population is thought to number at least 290,000 in the West
Indies, and 650,000 globally. In 1903,
Theodore Roosevelt set
Pelican Island, now known as
Pelican Island National Wildlife
Refugee, to solely protect the brown pelican from hunters.
Starting in the 1940s with the invention and extensive use of
pesticides such as DDT, the brown pelican population had drastically
declined due to a lack of breeding success. By the 1960s, it had
almost disappeared along the Gulf Coast and, in southern California,
it had suffered almost total reproductive failure, due to
DDT usage in
the United States. The brown pelican was listed under the United
Endangered Species Act
Endangered Species Act from 1970 to 2009. A research group
from the University of Tampa, headed by Ralph Schreiber, conducted
research in Tampa Bay, and found that
DDT caused the pelican eggshells
to be too thin to support the embryo to maturity. In 1972, the
United States Environmental Protection Agency
United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) banned
in the United States and limited the use of other pesticides. There
has been a decline in chemical contaminant levels in brown pelican
eggs since then, and a corresponding increase in its nesting
success. It became extinct in 1963 in Louisiana. Between 1968
and 1980, the
Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries’
reintroduction program re-established the brown pelican, and its
population numbers in
Texas were restored due to
improved reproduction and natural recolonization of the species. By
1985, its population in the eastern United States, including Florida,
Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, and northward along the Atlantic
Coast, had recovered and the species was removed from the Endangered
Species List. Its population has grown by about 68% per decade
over a period of 40 years in North America, and this trend appears to
be continuing. It is still listed as endangered in the Pacific
Coast region of its range and in the southern and central United
States. Although the United States Gulf Coast populations in Louisiana
Texas are still listed as endangered, they were recently estimated
at about 12,000 breeding pairs.
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Wikimedia Commons has media related to
Wikispecies has information related to
Pelican media". Internet
Pelican photo gallery at VIREO (Drexel University)
Field Guide Page on Flickr
Interactive range map of
Pelecanus occidentalis at
IUCN Red List
IUCN Red List maps
Pelicans (family: Pelecanidae · genus: Pelecanus)
American white pelican
Great white pelican
Shoebill (family: Balaenicipitidae · genus: Balaeniceps)
Hamerkop (family: Scopidae · genus: Scopus)