Be Your Own Birder

Weekly Bird: Brown Pelican

If you’ve ever been along an oceanic coast in the United States, the Caribbean or northern South America, odds are you’ve seen the instantly recognizable brown pelican. But there’s a lot more to these birds than just their large bills and fishing abilities!

Brown Pelican

Brown Pelican – Photo by Frank Schulenburg

Brown Pelican Fun Facts

The brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) is very easy to identify with its large bill, throat pouch, heavy body and slow, deliberate flight, but this brown pelican trivia may surprise you!

  • Brown pelicans are members of the Pelecanidae bird family, which includes all eight of the world’s pelican species. There are five brown pelican subspecies with slight differences in range and appearance. The Peruvian pelican (Pelecanus thagus) was once considered a sixth brown pelican subspecies.
  • The brown pelican is the smallest pelican, but is still impressively large with a wingspan that can reach up to eight feet (2.4 m) long. An adult brown pelican can weigh up to 12 pounds (5.4 kg). The bill measures an impressive 13-14 inches (33-36 cm) long.
  • These birds look slightly different on the east and west coasts of the United States. In their more colorful breeding plumage, western birds show a bright red patch on their throats, while eastern birds have a duller, greenish-black throat. Eastern birds are also slightly smaller than their western cousins.
  • These birds are very social and stay in flocks year-round. Flocks of brown pelicans can be called squadrons, pods or scoops.
  • Brown pelicans were drastically impacted by pesticide poisoning in the 1950s, so much so that they were nearly extinct. In 1970, they were declared federally endangered in the United States, but the species made a remarkable recovery thanks to conservation efforts. They were completely removed from the endangered species list in 2009.
  • These are only one of two pelican species that use the head-first plunge-dive fishing technique. Most pelicans hunt by floating on the water and grabbing fish swimming near the surface. Plunge-diving allows brown pelicans to hunt fish that swim at  deeper levels. Brown pelicans start their hunting dive from as high as 65 feet above the water.
  • Air sacs beneath the brown pelican’s skin help keep them very buoyant so they can resurface quickly after a hunting dive.
  • A brown pelican’s pouch can hold up to 2.6 gallons (9.8 L) of water. This is 2-3 times as large as the bird’s stomach, but it drains the water out of its bill by tilting its head back and contracting its throat muscles before swallowing whatever prey it has caught.
  • Brown pelicans eat more than just fish. Their diet also includes jellyfish, prawns, amphibians, eggs and even small birds or seal pups. They will occasionally eat carrion or trash on the shore, and wait for handouts from fishermen on boats and docks.
  • While usually quiet, these pelicans can make a variety of noises, including grunts, croaks and squeals.
  • The brown pelican is the official state bird of Louisiana, as well as the national bird of Saint Martin, Barbados, Saint Kitts and Nevis and the Turks and Caicos Islands
Add the Brown Pelican to Your Life List

If you want to see a brown pelican you need to head for the coast, since these birds are not found more than a few miles inland. They’re very easy to see, however, and frequently perch on docks, piers, pilings, breakwaters, buoys and jetties. They can also be found on coastal beaches, offshore islands, sandbars or inlet rivers, as well as perching in mangrove swamps. In flight, they often stay quite low, and may be only a few inches above the water. Brown pelicans are generally laid-back and approachable, allowing birders to get very good views (but don’t get too close to their powerful bills!).

Learn More About the Brown Pelican

These great resources can help you learn even more about brown pelicans…

Brown Pelican in Flight

Brown Pelican in Flight – Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren

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