Brown pelican: Pelecanus occidentalis
Genus/Species: Pelecanus occidentalis
Common Name: Brown pelican
Federal Status: Delisted
FL Status: State Species of Special Concern
FNAI Ranks: G4/S3 (Globally: Apparently Secure/ State: Rare)
IUCN Status: LC (Least Concern)
The brown pelican is the smallest of the six different species of pelicans in the world (Nesbitt 1996). This species can reach a length of 48 inches (121.9 centimeters) with an 84-inch (213.4 centimeters) wingspan. The brown pelican is a large grayish-brown bird with a distinct pouched bill. During the breeding season, the plumage (feathers) turns bright yellow on the head and white on the neck, which both fade to dull yellow and brown during non-breeding. (Florida Natural Areas Inventory 2001). Juvenile birds are almost completely brown with a whitish belly.
The brown pelican is a seabird, spending most of its time on or near the ocean. This species feeds on fish and has a very unique way of foraging. Unlike other pelicans species who work in flocks to corral their prey, brown pelicans dive headfirst into the water from heights as great as 50 feet (15.2 meters) to scoop up fish near the surface. Once they capture the fish, they tip their head upward or to the side to drain the water from their bill pouch. Though it looks as if the pelican submerges itself in the water during the dive, they usually remain on or near the surface of the water.
The brown pelican breeds in large colonies of several hundred pairs. These colonies can be found in trees or bushes usually on estuarine islands. In Florida, pelicans nest mostly in mangroves. Courtship involves the male swaying their head to attract a female mate. Breeding months differ by location. Breeding occurs between the spring and summer for pelicans above 30° N, and between winter and spring for pelicans in between the latitudes of 30° N and 20° N. Nests are made up of sticks on the outside, and leaves on the inside of the nest. Females lay between one and three white eggs, and incubation can take up to 30 days. Both adults incubate and feed the nestlings, which remain in or near the nest for approximately 70 days. Brown pelicans become sexually mature between the age of three and five years old (Shields 2002).
Habitat and Distribution
Brown pelicans inhabit beaches, sandbars, docks, dredge spoil islands, estuarine islands, mangrove islands, sand spits, and islets (Florida Natural Areas Inventory 2001). The Brown pelican is located on both coasts of North and South America. Along the Pacific side, the species can be found from British Columbia to the southern tip of South America; on the Atlantic side, they can be found from Maryland to South America (Florida Natural Areas Inventory 2001). In Florida, brown pelicans are widespread along the coast and can be seen inland during the non-breeding season.
Brown pelican populations suffered a severe decline during the 1960s and 1970s due to the effects of DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane – an insecticide). The population has rebounded since DDT was banned. Today, the main threats are habitat degradation, sea level rise, pollution, and the destruction of coastal wetlands. Increased coastal development may increase the presence of predators that will feed on pelican young and eggs, including rats, raccoons, opossums, crows, feral hogs, and coyotes. Other threats include oil spills and the use of the species’ eggs for fishing bait (Shields 2002).
Conservation and Management
The Brown pelican is protected by the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act and as a State Species of Special Concern by Florida’s Endangered and Threatened Species Rule .
Biological Status Review (BSR)
Supplemental Information for the BSR
Other Informative Links
Encyclopedia of Life
Florida Natural Areas Inventory
FWC Breeding Bird Atlas
International Union for Conservation of Nature
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Species Profile
Printable version of this page
Florida Natural Areas Inventory. 2001. Field guide to the rare animals of Florida. http://www.fnai.org/FieldGuide/pdf/Pelecanus_occidentalis.PDF
Nesbitt S.A., 1996. Eastern brown pelican. Pages 144-155 in J.A. Rodgers, Jr., H.W. Kale II, and H.T. Smith (Eds.). Rare and endangered biota of Florida, Vol. V: Birds. University Press of Florida, Gainesville, FL.
Shields, Mark. 2002. Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online.
Image Credit Photo by FWC