BROWN PELICAN (Pelecanus occidentalis)


Brown pelicans measure 45–54 inches (1.1–1.4 m) with a wingspan of 7 feet, 6 inches (2.3 m). A very large, stocky bird with a dark brown body and a long flat bill. The only non-white pelican in the world. Head whitish in adults, with dark brown on hind neck during breeding season. Young birds have dark brown head and whitish bellies.

Endangered status

The brown pelican is on the U.S. Endangered Species List. It is classified as endangered in California, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oregon, Texas, and Washington. Populations along the U.S. Atlantic coast and in Florida and Alabama are no longer considered endangered. Both species of pelicans are sensitive to chemical pollutants absorbed from the fish they eat. Historically, the worst of these has been DDT, which affects calcium metabolism, resulting in thin-shelled eggs that break when moved by the incubating bird (DDT was also responsible for the decline of the bald eagle and the peregrine falcon). Because of its more limited, exclusively coastal range, the brown pelican suffered more acutely than its relative, the white pelican, and its numbers crashed in the 1960s. But after the banning of many pesticides, these familiar birds are staging a comeback, and are even quite common in some East Coast locales.


Sandy coastal beaches and lagoons, waterfronts and pilings, and rocky cliffs.


Two or three chalky white eggs in a nest of sticks, straw, or other debris, usually on a rocky island near the coast. Nests in colonies.


Resident of Pacific Coast from southern California south to Chile, dispersing northward as far as southern British Columbia after nesting season. Also on Atlantic Coast from North Carolina south to Venezuela.


Usually silent, but utters low grunts on nesting grounds.


These social colonial birds fly in single file low over the water; on sighting prey they plunge with wings half-folded, from heights of up to 50 feet (15 m), surfacing to drain water from their bills before swallowing the fish. Unlike its larger white relative, the brown pelican seldom soars. Around waterfronts and marinas individual birds become quite tame, taking fish offered to them by humans.