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Brown Pelican
Pelicanus occidentalis
brown pelican
Brown pelican, photographed at Snook Islands Natural Area, Lake Worth, Palm Beach County, in March 2018.

The brown pelican, Pelicanus occidentalis, is unmistakable, with its long, thin neck and equally long beak and stretchy pouch and huge, stocky body.

It's a coastal bird, at home in California, Mexico's west and east coasts, the Gulf Coast and the Atlantic seaboard from Florida to Virginia. They're found as far south as Chile's central coast and the Galapagos Islands along the Pacific, and to Venezuela along the Atlantic. Brown pelicans rarely stray inland, preferring to stay near salt water rather than venture inland.

They will soar 60 feet or more above the surface, then suddenly dive-bomb into the water and use that pouch to scoop up a fishy meal. The secret to their success: incredible eyesight, and air sacs beneath their skin that cushion the blow when they hit the water.

The pelican's pouch can hold as much as three times the content of its stomach and as much as three gallons of water scooped up with its catch. The bird will squeeze the water out, then swallow the fish and hold them in its esophagus.

Brown pelicans have a wingspan that can exceed seven feet and a body length nearing five feet. But it's also the smallest of the seven pelican species worldwide. Their bodies are gray-brown, with white necks and yellow heads; immatures have brown heads and necks (compare the top and middle photos).

They are exceedingly common birds in South Florida, but it wasn't always that way. Near the turn of the 20th century, brown pelicans were heavily hunted for their plumage. In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt established Pelican Island near Sebastian as the nation's first national wildlife refuge to give the bird a measure of protection.

brown pelican
brown pelican

The passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918 banned their hunting and that of other birds. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, brown pelicans continued to be targets for commercial fisherman, who blamed the birds for poor catches. In the 1940s, with the advent of DDT, pelican populations began to plummet and by the 1960s, they disappeared from parts of their range.

In 1970, the FWS listed the pelican as endangered; the Environmental Protection Agency banned DDT, and pelican populations began to recover. By 1985, pelicans were taken off the endangered list in parts of their range, including Florida, but they still are listed in Texas and Louisiana, aka the Pelican State.

Brown pelicans will nest on land, in areas protected by dense vegetation, as well as in trees. On land, they will make a depression and line it with grass or make a more elaborate structure using sticks, grass and other vegetation. Tree nests are made of sticks and grass and leaves.

Photographs by David Sedore
pelicans flying

Males select the site and gather the material, while females do the construction work. Pelicans will have one brood a year, with as many as four chicks. Both parents take turns incubating the eggs by standing on them, and yes, accidents do happen.

It takes about three months for the young to mature to the point where they can take care of themselves, but it will take at least three years before they can reproduce.

You can spot brown pelicans at the beach, but if you want to see brown pelicans in large numbers, we suggest a trip to Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge near Sebastian. Pelican Island was the first national wildlife refuge in the U.S. They are year-round residents of Florida.


More Links for Brown Pelican Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology Audubon Society National Geographic
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