Brown Pelican

Bird of the Month: Brown Pelican

By Andrew McCormick

PC: Mick Thompson (Brown Pelican)

PC: Mick Thompson (Brown Pelican)

Scientific Name: Pelecanus occidentalis

Length 51 in

Wingspan 79 in

Weight 8.2 lb

AOU Band code BRPE

The Brown Pelican is a conservation success story. Populations on both the Pacific and Atlantic/Gulf coasts suffered tremendously during the 1960s when all North American pelicans were extirpated outside of Florida. After DDT was banned they made a remarkable recovery and their population may still be expanding (Kaufman). They do not breed in Washington but after leaving the breeding sites in California the birds will migrate northward to Washington waters with some birds arriving in mid-May. Long lines of Brown Pelicans can be seen off the Pacific Coast of Washington in the late summer and fall. They are easily identified by the average person and children love the site of these unique birds.

The Brown Pelican begins breeding in its third year and the species is marked by three distinct plumages: juvenile, breeding adult, and non-breeding adult. In general adults have light heads and dark bellies and juveniles are just the opposite. The adults have a white head with a wide brown stripe along the back of their neck, a yellowish crown, and pink color toward the tip of the bill.  The courting adult will have bright red on the gular pouch close to its neck.  The pouch is dark green most of the year (Alderfer). 

The Brown Pelican is distinctive among the eight pelican species worldwide as it is the only dark colored pelican, only primarily marine species, and the only one that makes spectacular plunge dives when foraging for fish. Once the Brown Pelican catches a fish it will tip its bill to allow the water to drain out and then flip its head back to swallow the fish. Some gulls and terns such as Heerman’s and Laughing Gulls and Roseate Terns will steal fish while the pelican is draining its pouch or dive into the water to catch fish escaping from the pouch. The gular pouch is quite flexible and the pelicans can often be seen stretching their head in display but also possibly to keep the pouch flexible. 

The genus Pelicanus is from the Greek pelekan and the species occidentalis is Latin for western with reference to it being a New World species (Holloway). The Pacific coast subspecies californicus is larger than the Atlantic carolinensis. Brown Pelicans typically breed on islands and build a nest on the ground, a cliff or in low trees such as mangroves. Two to four eggs are deposited and incubated by both parents for about a month. Once hatched the parents feed them until well after their first flight in another 9-12 weeks (Kaufman). The birds are generally silent but will make grunting sounds on the breeding grounds.

The bird has been removed from the national Endangered Species List but is still listed as endangered in California. Although the population has grown past the pre-DDT levels Brown Pelicans are highly susceptible to oil spills, getting tangled in fishing gear and because they eat so many fish, they may have high levels of toxins in their bodies.