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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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Brown Pelican
(Pelecanus occidentalis)
by National Zoological Park. part of the Smithsonian Institution

Brown Pelicans are large (3-5 kg) mostly dark brown birds with white to pale yellow necks and black feet and legs. Their most distinguishing feature is a long beak (23-34 cm) with a hooked tip and a huge pouch. Their legs are short and all four toes are webbed. Their wing span is more than 2 meters, they soar well, and often glide low over the water. The sexes are alike.

Distribution and Habitat
There are seven or eight species of pelican in the world. Brown Pelicans breed from Anacapa Island, California south to Chile and from Maryland to Venezuela and Trinidad. After breeding, they may be seen as far north as British Columbia and Nova Scotia. They are the only species of pelican that is strictly marine in habitat, never found more than 20 miles out to sea or inland on fresh water. They prefer shallow inshore waters such as estuaries and bays.

Brown Pelicans feed on mid-sized fish that they capture by diving from above and then scooping or dipping the fish into their pouch, which acts as a flexible dip net. Although they do feed on anchovies and sardines most of their prey has little commercial value. They are the only species of pelican that hunts with such dramatic plunging dives. After capturing the fish they rise to the surface and drain the water from the pouch. They point the bill up and swallow the catch. They are often robbed of their catch by gulls before they get the chance to swallow. Juvenile Brown Pelicans have been observed fishing in the manner of the other pelican species, by swimming on the surface of the water. The pelican's beak can "really hold more than its belly can". The pouch holds about three gallons, the stomach about one gallon. They also take some invertebrates. They are familiar sight around fishing ports within their range, where they roost on piers, docks, and fishing boats feeding on scraps.

Nesting is on islands by preference. On the Southeast coast, it is often in mangroves, where the birds build a rather flimsy nest of sticks, reeds, bones, and seaweed. On islands without predators, they often build on the ground. They nest in colonies, and are sensitive to disturbance by tourists and fisherman while breeding. There usually lay two or three eggs in March or April. Incubation lasts 28 to 30 days. Both parents care for the naked, helpless chicks. They feed their chicks by regurgitation. Fledging requires 63 to 76 days, with little or no post fledging care depending on the length of time the young spent in the nest. Sexual maturity is reached after two to five years.

Although globally abundant, Brown Pelicans were once severely endangered in the United States. The major cause of their decline was pesticide poisoning. Since DDT was banned, there has been a full recovery on the east coast and other populations are showing steady improvement. Threats today include becoming snarled in abandoned fishing lines and flying into overhead wires. The Zoo's birds are rehabilitated birds, which were injured in this fashion. Other factors include human disturbance of nesting colonies and reduction of fish stocks by excessive commercial fishing.


  • Del Hoyo, J., Elliot, A. and J. Sargatal. eds. 1992. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 1. Ostrich to Ducks. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  • Ehrlich, P. R., Dobkin, D. S., and D. Wheye. 1992. Birds in Jeopardy. Stanford University Press, Stanford.
  • Harrison, P. 1983. Seabirds. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston.

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Canku Ota is a copyright © 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 of Vicki Barry and Paul Barry.
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