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brown pelican

Pelecanus occidentalis

What do they look like?

Brown pelicans have a large body and a long bill. They have a huge throat pouch attached to the bottom of their bill that can hold 3 gallons of water. This is 3 times more than their stomach can hold. They have darker feathers than other kinds of pelicans. Their feet are completely webbed. They weigh 2 to 5 kg, and males are 15 to 20% heavier than females. Their bodies are 100 to 137 cm long, their bills are 25 to 38 cm long, and their wingspan averages 200 cm long. Their bills and wingspan are both slightly larger in males. (Bartholomew and Dawsom, 1954; Schreiber, 1980; Sheilds, 2002; Tangley, 2009)

The feathers and eye color of brown pelicans change color many times depending on their age and the time of the year. Young brown pelicans lose their feathers 6 times before they look like their parents. When they are 3 to 5 years old they are gray-brown on the top, blackish-brown on their belly, and striped black and silver on their underside. After breeding, their heads turn light yellow and their necks turn white. Young brown pelicans have brown eyes that turn tan or blue during courtship. (Bartholomew and Dawsom, 1954; Schreiber, 1980; Sheilds, 2002; Tangley, 2009)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male larger
  • Range mass
    2 to 5 kg
    4.41 to 11.01 lb
  • Range length
    100 to 137 cm
    39.37 to 53.94 in
  • Average wingspan
    200 cm
    78.74 in

Where do they live?

Brown pelicans are found in warm and shallow waters along the coast of the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean in North and South America. They almost always live on the coast but can live inland after breeding. Brown pelicans breed in the United States from Maryland down to and around to Texas. They are also found in California. In Mexico, they live on islands off the coast and along the Gulf of Mexico. They live on islands in the Carribean and as far south as Central America and the northern parts of South America around Ecuador, as well as in the Galapagos Islands. (Sheilds, 2002)

What kind of habitat do they need?

Pelicans live along the ocean coast, and are almost always within 20 miles of the shore. They like warm coastal ocean water or places where rivers meet the ocean when they are not breeding. They sleep offshore at night and rest during the day when they are not looking for food. They rest on sandbars, breakwaters, and rocks or islands just offshore. When ready to breed, they move to small islands where there aren't any predators. They breed on grassy islands, rocky islands, and in flooded forests along the shore depending on their location. (Sheilds, 2002; Tangley, 2009)

How do they reproduce?

Brown pelicans form a mating pair each season. They migrate south to breed if they don't live there year-round. Usually they start nesting in late fall and continue into early June. However, the time they nest depends a lot on where they live, what kind of food is available, and the hurricane season. (Miller, 1983; Nellis, 2001; Schreiber, 1980; Sheilds, 2002)

Male brown pelicans find a location for the nest before they are paired up with a female. They protect locations they might nest in for up to 3 weeks. When males find mates, they bring her nesting materials to build the nest. It can take up to 7 days to build the nest. Three days later, females lay their first eggs. (Miller, 1983; Nellis, 2001; Schreiber, 1980; Sheilds, 2002)

Brown pelicans lay eggs at different times of the year depending on where they live. In the United States, they generally lay eggs in the summer. In the warmest parts of their habitat, they breed year-round. In other places like California and Panama, egg laying happens in the winter. Pairs of brown pelicans build nests in trees or on the ground close to many other brown pelicans. They like to nest in trees if that is possible, but can also nest in a spot in the sand. Their nests are made of grasses, sticks, leaves, and/or seaweed. They sometimes steal from other nests or use manmade things like rope and parts of window screens. (Bartholomew and Dawsom, 1954; Miller, 1983; Nellis, 2001; Robinson and Dindo, 2011; Sheilds, 2002)

Brown pelicans lay 1 to 4 eggs that are white like chalk and textured. Adults lay 3 eggs per season and younger brown pelicans don't lay more than 2 eggs. They use their webbed feet to keep the eggs warm for 29 to 32 days. Not all of the eggs actually hatch, but about 7 in 10 do. The chicks have a special tooth on the tip of their beak which they use to break open the shell. It takes 31 hours after the first peck for the eggs to hatch. When they are born, brown pelican chicks weigh 54.9 to 87 grams and 73.5 grams on average. Ten grams of their weight is egg yolk which is in the abdomen. Their egg tooth goes away within 10 days. (Bartholomew and Dawsom, 1954; Miller, 1983; Nellis, 2001; Robinson and Dindo, 2011; Sheilds, 2002)

Newly hatched chicks have pinkish gray skin covered in fluff. Their skin gets darker by day 9. By day 10, they are lightly covered in white downy feathers. This coat becomes a full covering in 10 more days. Their feet are dull white in color for the first 24 days, but then turn dark gray or black. They get feathers by day 30, and can fly in 11 weeks. After they can fly and are 3 months old, they are old enough to be independent of their parents. They don't get adult feathers until they are 3 years old. If brown pelicans are taken away from their birth place by scientists, they go back to where they were born within 3 years. Brown pelicans can have their own young when they are 2 years old but usually don't until they are 3 or 4 years old. (Bartholomew and Dawsom, 1954; Miller, 1983; Nellis, 2001; Robinson and Dindo, 2011; Sheilds, 2002)

  • How often does reproduction occur?
    Brown pelicans breed seasonally in colder climates and year-round in warmer climates.
  • Breeding season
    The breeding season varies with latitude and often depends on local food availability.
  • Range eggs per season
    2 to 3
  • Average eggs per season
  • Average eggs per season
  • Range time to hatching
    29 to 30 days
  • Average time to hatching
    30 days
  • Average fledging age
    11 weeks
  • Average time to independence
    3 months
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    2 to 4 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    3-4 years
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    2 to 4 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    3-4 years

Both males and females work together to build their nest, incubate their eggs, protect their nest, feed and protect their young, and teach them to fly. Parents switch off guarding the nest until the young are 4 to 6 weeks old. When they are born, chicks can't keep themselves warm so their parents do. They begin by eating regurgitated fish from their mouths of their parents. When chicks are about 3 months old, they can fly and are able to feed themselves. (Bartholomew and Dawsom, 1954; Nellis, 2001; Schreiber, 1980; Sheilds, 2002)

  • Parental Investment
  • male parental care
  • female parental care
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female

How long do they live?

Brown pelicans live a long time. The record for the longest life in the wild is 43 years. Only 30% survive the first year and only 2% live longer than 10 years. Sometimes chicks peck their younger siblings or push them out of the nest and they die. This is why first-born chicks are more than twice as likely to survive compared to their younger siblings. (Nellis, 2001)

How do they behave?

Brown pelicans are active only during the day. Sometimes, however, they have been spotted fishing by the light of a full moon. They spend their time hunting, bathing, sunbathing, and resting. They sleep on land while standing on both feet, or by resting on their breast and belly. When resting on their breast and belly, they lay their head on their shoulder and tilt their bill to one side. They usually sunbathe with one wing to the side. They bathe with their head under the surface of the water while beating their wings on the water. Then they spread oil from a special gland onto their feathers. (Nellis, 2001; Pennycuick, 1982; Schreiber and Schreiber, 1982; Schreiber, 1977)

Brown pelicans are the only pelicans that dive out of the air to get their food. They have special air sacs which make it easy for them to float. They don't swim underwater but jab their head underwater while trying to catch prey. They paddle their webbed feet to swim around on the water's surface. On land, they are clumsy and sometimes stick their wings out for balance. In the air, they switch between gliding and flapping their wings. They average 2.4 wing flaps between gliding. They glide just above the water's surface to reduce the amount of drag so they don't have to use as much energy to fly. They glide at an average speed of 11.7 meters per second. When taking off to fly, they stick out their necks, but pull their head back onto the shoulders once they are off the ground. (Nellis, 2001; Pennycuick, 1982; Schreiber and Schreiber, 1982; Schreiber, 1977)

Brown pelicans are territorial of their nesting area. If an intruder comes, they start by making threat displays to show they are ready to interact. If another pelican comes too close, they bow their head and make a noise that sounds like "hrraa-hrraa" in defense. They defend their nest against intruders. They will even kill other pelicans if they come too close. Brown pelicans avoid physical fights by swaying their head from side to side or by raising their bill up and spreading their wings at the same time. Brown pelican chicks play by taking apart the nest or playing fetch with themselves using sticks or shells. (Nellis, 2001; Pennycuick, 1982; Schnell, et al., 1983; Schreiber and Schreiber, 1982)

Most brown pelicans that live farther north migrate south in the fall. They start to migrate when it gets colder and there are less prey available. They return in March or April. A few groups of brown pelicans stay up north in the winter and don't migrate. Brown pelicans living in the south (like in North and South Carolina) don't migrate either because the winter isn't very cold. (Nellis, 2001; Pennycuick, 1982; Schreiber and Schreiber, 1982; Schreiber, 1977)

Home Range

Brown pelicans look for food within 20 km of their nest during the breeding season. During the rest of the year, they go up to 175 km from the mainland and 75 km from an island looking for food. (Sheilds, 2002)

How do they communicate with each other?

Brown pelicans communicate through their behavior, making noises, by touch, and by chemical signals. Adults commonly make a low noise that sounds like "hrraa-hrraa" while swaying their heads. They especially do this while finding mates and protecting their nests. Other times they bow to each other, which is often in defense. Chicks communicate by making noises too. In the day or two before hatching, they peep from inside the egg. Young brown pelicans in the nest make a scratchy and high pitched call to their parents usually while they are searching for food. (Schreiber, 1980)

What do they eat?

Brown pelicans are carnivores that mostly eat fish. They also eat some small sea creatures that don't have vertebrae. Their eyesight is so sharp that they can dive from 20 meters in the air to catch prey. Their eyesight isn't very good underwater, but good enough to grab prey from just under the surface while they are floating on the water. Their lower jaw is split in half, which allows them to make a big scoop motion with their throat pouch. They can drink saltwater because they have a salt gland in their bodies that gets rid of all the extra salt. Brown pelicans usually look for food close to shore but can go up to 20 miles offshore as well. They usually hunt alone, but if they hunt together they will scare fish toward their hunting partner. They usually hunt early in the morning and in the evening. ("The California Brown Pelican recovery plan", 1983; Brandt, 1984; Carl, 1987; Nellis, 2001; Schnell, et al., 1983; Sheilds, 2002)

Common foods that brown pelicans eat are herring, anchovies, sardines, and fry fish. If they live close to humans, they can get a lot of food from around boats, docks, and piers. Birds called laughing gulls often steal food from thier beaks. Laughing gulls will even sit on the backs of brown pelicans and wait until they can steal food. Once in a long while, brown pelicans steal food from other birds too. ("The California Brown Pelican recovery plan", 1983; Brandt, 1984; Carl, 1987; Nellis, 2001; Schnell, et al., 1983; Sheilds, 2002)

Brown pelican chicks eat fish that is digested, regurgitated, and brought to them by their parents. In captivity, they eat up to 50 kg of fish from the time they are born to the time they are able to fly. Adult brown pelicans are better hunters than their young. Adults are about 84% successful and younger birds are 43 to 75% successful at catching prey. Adults are probably better at diving, handling prey, and knowing if they will be successful at catching a particular prey item they are going after. Brown pelicans get better at hunting as they get older. ("The California Brown Pelican recovery plan", 1983; Brandt, 1984; Carl, 1987; Nellis, 2001; Schnell, et al., 1983; Sheilds, 2002)

  • Animal Foods
  • fish
  • aquatic crustaceans
  • other marine invertebrates

What eats them and how do they avoid being eaten?

Humans hunt brown pelicans to eat their meat and eggs, and also for their feathers. Fish crows and other birds of prey eat their eggs too. One in a while, bobcats eat brown pelican chicks or injured adults. Feral cats, feral dogs, and raccoons eat chicks when they can. Reptiles that eat chicks are Mexican spiny-tailed iguanas and American alligators. Another threat to chicks are red imported fire ants, which can kill up to 60% of hatchlings if they get into the nest. Once in a while, adults are attacked by sharks and sea lions while floating on the water. When approached by a predator, brown pelicans will usually fly away individually rather than as a group. If they have eggs in the nest or are caring for young, they try to scare predators before they fly away. (Nellis, 2001)

What roles do they have in the ecosystem?

Brown pelicans get parasites on their skin and feathers as well as inside their bodies. Fowl ticks called Carios capensis and Ornithodoros denmarki are found in their nests, but don't seem to really make them sick or die. Large numbers of mosquitoes can force them to abandon their nests. There are 31 different species of helminths that are parasites in their small intestine. The 4 most common ones are called Phagicola longus, Mesostephanus appendiculatoides, Galactostomum darbyi, and Stephanoprora denticulata. There are about 7,000 of them in each brown pelican, but they aren't deadly. Three different species of diplostomes have been found in the small intestines of brown pelicans in Texas, which are called Bolbophorus confusus, Bursacetabulus pelecanus, and Bursacetabulus macrobursus. Mites living just under the skin that are from the family Hypoderidae have been found in the neck and windpipe from brown pelicans in Florida and Louisiana. These are Phalacrodectes punctatissimus, Phalacrodectes pelecani, and Pelecanectes apunctatus. Nestlings in Florida also have coccidian sporozoa from Eimeria pelecani parasites. (Sheilds, 2002)

Commensal or parasitic species (or larger taxonomic groups) that use this species as a host
  • fowl ticks Carios capensis
  • fowl ticks Ornithodoros denmarki
  • hippoboscid flies Olfersia sordida
  • epidermoptid mites Myialges caulotoon
  • helminth worms Phagicola longus
  • helminth worms Mesostephanus appendiculatoides
  • helminth worms Mesostephanus appendiculatoides
  • helminth worms Galactostomum darbyi
  • helminth worms Stephanoprora denticulata
  • diplostomes Bolbophorus confusus
  • diplostomes Bursacetabulus pelecanus
  • diplostomes Bursacetabulus macrobursus
  • endoparasitic mites Phalacrodectes punctatissimus
  • endoparasitic mites Phalacrodectes pelecani
  • endoparasitic mites Pelecanectes apunctatus
  • coccidian sporozoa Eimeria pelecani
  • Culicidae

Do they cause problems?

Brown pelicans eat large amounts of small fish that are important to fishermen. (Schreiber, 1980)

How do they interact with us?

Humans hunt pelicans to eat both their meat and eggs. Their feathers are also valuable. Because they look interesting, they are commonly used for research and education. (Sheilds, 2002)

  • Ways that people benefit from these animals:
  • food
  • body parts are source of valuable material
  • research and education

Are they endangered?

The IUCN lists brown pelicans as "least concern" and the United States gives them no special status. In the 1950's and 1960's they were negatively affected by the pesticide DDT, which caused their eggs to break before they hatched. Scientists worked to restore their populations in Louisiana between 1968 and 1976. After a slight hiccup, they returned to their previous population size by 1990. On the lists, they were listed as threatened in 1985 and removed from the list in 2009. They are adapted to survive in hurricane locations and years when the climate makes less prey available. They are threatened by humans disturbing them, fish hooks and lines, oil spills, and human activities such as hunting, egging, and trapping. Brown pelicans were the species hardest hit by the Gulf oil spill of 2010. They made up 58% of injuries and deaths to birds. Scientists aren't sure yet what the long-term affects of this oil spill are on brown pelicans. (Nellis, 2001; Nesbitt, et al., 1978; Sheilds, 2002; Tangley, 2009)

Some more information...

The scientific name for brown pelicans, Pelecanus occidentalis, comes from the Greek word pelakan and the species name is Latin for "western". (Nellis, 2001)


Victoria Scott (author), Radford University, Karen Powers (editor), Radford University, Kiersten Newtoff (editor), Radford University, Melissa Whistleman (editor), Radford University, Catherine Kent (editor), Special Projects.


U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The California Brown Pelican recovery plan. 1448-1342-98-N015. Washington, D.C.: USFWS. 1983.

Anderson, D., J. Keith, G. Trapp, F. Gress, L. Moreno. 1989. Introduced Small Ground Predators in California Brown Pelican Colonies. Colonial Waterbirds, 12/1: 98-103.

Bartholomew, G., W. Dawsom. 1954. Temperature Regulation in Young Pelicans, Herons, and Gulls. Ecology, 35/4: 466-472.

Brandt, C. 1984. Age and Hunting Success in the Brown Pelican: Influences of Skill and Patch Choice on Forgaging Efficiency. Oecologia, 62/1: 132-137.

Carl, R. 1987. Age-class variation in foraging techniques by Brown Pelicans. Condor, 89/3: 525-533.

Croll, D., L. Balance, B. Wursig, B. Tyler. 1986. Movements and Daily Activity Patterns of a Brown Pelican in Central California. The Condor, 88/2: 258-260.

Herbert, N., R. Schreiber. 1975. Diurnal Activity of Brown Pelicans at a Marina. Florida Field Naturalist, 3: 11-12.

Kushlan, J., P. Frohring. 1986. Decreases in the Brown Pelican Population in Southern Florida. Colonial Waterbirds, 8/2: 83-95.

Miller, J. 1983. The Family of Pelican. Science News, 124/4: 62.

Nellis, D. 2001. Common Coastal Birds of Florida & the Caribbean. Sarasota, FL: Pineapple Press, Inc..

Nesbitt, S., L. Williams, L. McNease, T. Joanen. 1978. Brown Pelican Restocking Efforts in Louisiana. The Wilson Bulletin, 90/3: 443-445.

Pennycuick, C. 1982. Hermal soaring compared in three dissimilar tropical bird species, Fregata magnificens, Pelecanus occidentalis, and Coragyps atratus.. The Journal of Experimental Biology, 102: 307-325.

Robinson, O., J. Dindo. 2011. Egg Success, Hatching Success, and Nest-site Selection of Brown Pelicans, Gaillard Island, Alabama, US. The Wilson Journal of Ornithology, 123/2: 386-390.

Schmidt-Nelsen, K., R. Fange. 1958. The function of the salt gland in the Brown Pelican. The Auk, 75: 282-289.

Schnell, G., B. Woods, B. Ploger. 1983. Brown Pelican foraging success and kleptoparasitism by Laughing Gulls. The Auk, 100/3: 636-644.

Schreiber, R., E. Schreiber. 1982. Essential habitat of the Brown Pelican in Florida.. Florida Field Naturalist, 10: 9-17.

Schreiber, R. 1977. Maintenance Behavior and Communication in the Brown Pelican. Ornithological Monographs, 22: 1-78.

Schreiber, R. 1980. Nesting Chronology of the Eastern Brown Pelican. The Auk, 97/3: 491-508.

Sheilds, M. 2002. The Birds of North America. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Tangley, L. 2009. Oil Spill Hammers Brown Pelicans. National Wildlife, 48/6: 12-14.

University of Michigan Museum of ZoologyNational Science Foundation

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Scott, V. 2012. "Pelecanus occidentalis" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed April 18, 2024 at

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