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10 Fascinating Facts About the Brown Pelican

The Brown Pelican, scientifically known as Pelecanus occidentalis, is a fascinating bird species that can be found along the coastal regions of the Americas. Its distinctive appearance and behavior make it an interesting subject for bird watchers and nature enthusiasts alike.

In this article, we will explore the field identification and the different plumages of the Brown Pelican, highlighting key information for easy identification.


Field Identification

The Brown Pelican is easily recognizable by its large bill, which is long and straight with a hooked tip. Its body is stocky and it has short, stubby legs.

When in flight, the Brown Pelican has a characteristic “bouncing” flight pattern, with quick flaps and steep glides. It has all brown wings and body, except for its white head and neck during breeding season.

The Brown Pelican is a coastal bird and can be found swimming and diving offshore or perched on pilings, jetties, or along beaches. They are medium-sized, with some males reaching up to 1.7 meters in length and a wingspan of 2.5 meters.

Similar Species

One of the Brown Pelican’s closest relatives, the Peruvian Pelican, is very similar in appearance, but can be distinguished by its darker brown color, larger bill, and longer wings. Additionally, the Peruvian Pelican is found along the Pacific coast of South America, while the Brown Pelican is found along the coasts of the Atlantic, Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico.


The Brown Pelican has two main plumages: the breeding plumage and the non-breeding plumage. The breeding plumage is characterized by white head and neck, deep chestnut brown feathers on the neck and upper back, bright reef blue on the bill, and yellow eyes.

The non-breeding plumage, on the other hand, is all brown, except for a yellow patch at the base of the bill. The eyes are also a pale yellow-green.


The Brown Pelican has two molts in a year, one complete and one partial. The complete molt takes place after the breeding season, and the Brown Pelican sheds all of its flight feathers at once, rendering it flightless for a few weeks until the new feathers grow in.

The partial molt occurs throughout the year, with both juveniles and adults losing and replacing feathers regularly. Interestingly, the Brown Pelican is one of the few bird species that routinely ingest saltwater while feeding, as they dive to catch fish.

To deal with this, the Brown Pelican has a unique exocrine gland above its nasal opening which filters salt from the bloodstream and excretes it through salt crystals that are eventually discarded. In conclusion, the Brown Pelican is a fascinating bird species with unique characteristics and behaviors for those who have an interest in bird watching or conservation.

Understanding the field identification and plumages can make it easier for birders to spot and identify Brown Pelicans in the wild. Systematics History:

The study of the systematics of the Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, has considerable history.

The name Pelecanus was derived from the Greek word ‘pelekys’ meaning “axe,” possibly referring to the shape of the bill. Four subspecies of the Brown Pelican were recognized in earlier studies, but their distinctions have been debated among experts.

Geographic Variation:

The Brown Pelican exhibits slight geographic variation in terms of size and color. Additionally, subspecies from different geographical regions were originally distinguished by their size differences and plumage colors.

The Atlantic subspecies is smaller than the Pacific subspecies, and the color of the back and neck can range from a dark brown or almost black to a lighter grayish-brown.


Before 2014, four subspecies of the Brown Pelican were recognized: P.

o. carolinensis, P.

o. occidentalis, P.

o. californicus and P.

o. murphyi.

– Pelecanus occidentalis occidentalis: The nominate subspecies of P. o.

occidentalis is found on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States, as well as the Caribbean islands and parts of northern South America. – Pelecanus occidentalis carolinensis: This subspecies is found along the southeastern coast of the United States, Bermuda, and the Bahamas.

They are smaller and darker than the nominate subspecies, with a shorter bill. – Pelecanus occidentalis californicus: This subspecies is found along the Pacific coast of North and Central America from British Columbia to Panama.

They are the largest subspecies with an average wingspan of 2.5 meters. – Pelecanus occidentalis murphyi: This subspecies was found in the Galpagos Islands but is now extinct.

In 2014, a study was conducted using genetics and morphology to propose that the four subspecies be merged into two: P. o.

occidentalis (which includes carolinensis) and P. o.

californicus. The study found that the subspecies did not differ significantly enough in genetics or morphology to warrant separate status.

Related Species:

The Brown Pelican is one of eight species in the Pelecanus genus. The other species include:

– Peruvian Pelican (Pelecanus thagus)

– Great White Pelican (Pelecanus onocrotalus)

– Pink-Backed Pelican (Pelecanus rufescens)

– Australian Pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus)

– Spot-Billed Pelican (Pelecanus philippensis)

– Dalmatian Pelican (Pelecanus crispus)

– American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos)

Historical Changes to Distribution:

Historically, the Brown Pelican was widely distributed along the coasts of North and South America, from the Pacific to the Atlantic, and as far south as Peru.

However, due to factors such as habitat loss, pollution, hunting for their feathers, and egg collecting, the population of the Brown Pelican began to decline in the late 1800s. By the mid-1900s, the population of the Brown Pelican had plummeted to the point of near extinction due to the use of DDT, a pesticide that was toxic to birds.

This chemical caused the thinning of the eggshells, which resulted in the death of embryos. In 1972, DDT was banned in the United States, which led to the recovery of the Brown Pelican population.

Today, the Brown Pelican can be found along the coasts of California, the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic coast, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. They are considered a species of concern in some areas due to habitat loss and degradation.


The systematics history, geographic variation, subspecies, related species, and historical changes in distribution of the Brown Pelican are all important aspects of understanding this unique bird. Demographic shifts and habitat loss have threatened their population in the past, so continued conservation efforts are needed to ensure that the Brown Pelican can continue to thrive in their coastal habitats.


The Brown Pelican is a coastal bird that inhabits a variety of marine and estuarine environments, including bays, lagoons, and mangroves. They require a habitat with clear water and ample food sources, as they primarily feed on fish.

Brown Pelicans roost on shorelines, sandbars, and on man-made structures like pilings and docks. Movements and Migration:

Brown Pelicans are primarily non-migratory and resident in their coastal habitats throughout the year, with some populations being partially migratory.

Non-breeding birds may disperse along the coast in search of food, but breeding birds will stay within their respective colonies. Some populations of the Brown Pelican have seasonal movements related to breeding cycles, with some individuals moving to breeding colonies during specific times of the year.

The Atlantic subspecies of Brown Pelican, for example, breeds in coastal islands and barrier beaches of the southeastern United States during the winter months, moving to inland estuaries and bays for the rest of the year. During breeding season, male Brown Pelicans are known for their impressive courtship displays, which include visual and audio cues designed to attract female mates.

The male will puff out his throat and snap his bill, while emitting a low-pitched growl. In addition to seasonal breeding movements, some Brown Pelicans may make long-distance movements in search of food or inhabit new coastal areas after habitat loss or degradation.

In 2015, a Brown Pelican was spotted in British Columbia, which was the first confirmed sighting in this region. Threats:

Although the population of the Brown Pelican has increased since the ban of DDT and other pesticides, it still faces a variety of threats.

The degradation and loss of coastal habitats due to human development and climate change, as well as oil spills, are some of the biggest threats to the Brown Pelican’s survival. Oil spills can be particularly devastating to the Brown Pelican, as their feathers become coated with the oil, preventing them from flying and making them vulnerable to hypothermia and predation.

Additionally, the ingestion of oil can also be fatal to Brown Pelicans, as it can disrupt their digestive systems and cause dehydration. Conservation:

The Brown Pelican is recognized as a species of concern due to habitat loss and degradation; therefore, conservation efforts have been implemented to protect their populations.

These conservation efforts include habitat restoration, nesting platform installation, and monitoring populations. One notable success story of conservation efforts for the Brown Pelican is the restoration of their populations in the Gulf of Mexico following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.

Intensive conservation efforts were put in place to prevent the oil from reaching the breeding colonies, and a large-scale rehabilitation operation was launched to treat birds affected by the oil spill. Conclusion:

The Brown Pelican is a coastal bird that depends on clear water and ample food sources.

While the species is primarily non-migratory, some populations may exhibit seasonal movements for breeding or dispersal. Conservation efforts are vital to protect the Brown Pelican’s populations from habitat loss and threats such as oil spills.

The successes of these efforts, as seen in the Gulf of Mexico, provide hope for the future of this unique bird species. Diet and Foraging:


The Brown Pelican is a specialized feeder that primarily preys on small fish, such as anchovies, mullets, and sardines.

They are well-equipped for this type of feeding, with a unique physical structure that enables them to capture prey underwater. When foraging, Brown Pelicans usually fly at low altitudes over water, scanning for schools of fish.

Once a potential prey group is spotted, they use their keen eyesight to dive from heights of up to 20 meters, plummeting towards the water with their wings partially folded. When the Brown Pelican hits the water, it closes its bill, forcing water to escape out of its throat pouch.

This compresses the pouch and traps the fish and water inside. After rising to the surface, they will tip their bill down, allowing the water to drain out, and then swallow the fish whole.

Once the fish is consumed, Brown Pelicans may fly back to their perches or continue to forage in search of more prey. Diet:

Brown Pelicans have a varied diet that can change depending on the location and availability of prey species.

Some of their preferred prey species, aside from the previously mentioned fish, include squid and crustaceans like shrimp. Metabolism and Temperature Regulation:

Brown Pelicans are endothermic, meaning they can regulate their body temperature internally.

They maintain their body temperature at around 37C, even in cold water. This is achieved through a combination of physiological adaptations, such as a counter-current blood flow system, which minimizes heat loss.

Additionally, they maintain their internal temperature through behavioral thermoregulation, such as huddling together in groups to conserve heat. Sounds and Vocal Behavior:


Brown Pelicans are relatively quiet birds, with most vocalizations being low-pitched grunts and growls.

Out of breeding season, the frequency of their vocalizations reduces even further. However, during breeding season, both males and females become more vocal, utilizing a variety of vocalizations to communicate with potential mates.

The courtship calls of Brown Pelicans consist mostly of low-pitched grunts and barks. The calls can vary in duration and intensity depending on the context of the behavior.

Additionally, Brown Pelicans will use visual displays such as bill-snapping, head-tossing, and posturing to communicate their intentions to potential mates. During the nesting period, adults will use low-pitched grunts and whistles to communicate with their chicks.

These calls help to identify individual chicks and facilitate interactions between parents and their young. In conclusion, the Brown Pelican’s unique physical adaptations and feeding behaviors have allowed it to become a successfully specialized feeder of small fish and other marine life.

Its vocalizations, while not extensively varied, play an important role in courtship and parental interactions. The combination of these behaviors and adaptations make the Brown Pelican a fascinating and truly unique coastal bird.



Brown Pelicans are highly adapted to life in marine environments, and as such, their locomotion is mainly focused on aerial and aquatic movement. On land, they are somewhat awkward, due to their short legs and stout bodies.

In the water, they are excellent swimmers, propelled by their powerful webbed feet and strong wings that allow them to swim and dive with ease. In the air, their large wingspan and strong muscles enable them to soar at high altitudes and perform impressive aerial maneuvers.


Brown Pelicans are social birds, and they engage in a variety of self-maintenance behaviors, such as preening their feathers, scratching themselves, and stretching their wings. Preening is an essential activity for birds, as it helps to maintain the health and appearance of their feathers.

Brown Pelicans preen using their bill, and they may also use their feet to scratch hard-to-reach areas. Agonistic Behavior:

Brown Pelicans are generally peaceful birds, but they can exhibit agonistic behaviors towards their own species, especially during the breeding season.

Agonistic behavior includes posturing, vocalization, bill-snapping, and chasing behaviors, aimed at competing for mates or defending a nesting territory. Sexual Behavior:

During breeding season, males will engage in elaborate courtship displays, including preening their feathers, head-tossing, and bill-snapping.

Females are known to select partners based on physical displays, such as bill color and pouch size. Once a mate has been selected, the pair will work together in nest building, incubating the eggs, and raising their chicks.


Brown Pelicans form large breeding colonies in coastal regions, with some colonies containing thousands of individuals. Nest sites are typically found on beaches, islands, and in coastal vegetation, and are often reused year after year.

Nests are built using sticks, pieces of vegetation, and other materials, and can be located on the ground or on elevated platforms such as rocks or trees. Brown Pelicans typically mate for life, and the breeding season can last anywhere from a few weeks to several months, depending on the location.

Females usually lay two to three eggs, which are incubated by both parents for around a month. Once the chicks hatch, they are fed regurgitated fish by their parents until they are able to hunt on their own.

Demography and Populations:

The Brown Pelican was heavily impacted by human activity in the past, with populations declining due to habitat loss, pollution, hunting, and chemical exposure. However, conservation efforts have been implemented to save the species, including habitat protection, population monitoring, and the use of artificial nesting platforms to increase reproductive success.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the global population of Brown Pelicans is estimated to be around 650,000 individuals, with populations in several areas showing positive growth. However, some populations still face threats, such as habitat loss and degradation, which highlight the need for continued conservation efforts to ensure the survival of this unique coastal bird species.

In conclusion, the Brown Pelican is a social bird species that engages in a variety of behaviors, including self-maintenance, agonistic behavior, and sexual behavior during the breeding season. They breed in large colonies along coastal regions, with both parents involved in nest-building, incubation, and chick-rearing.

Populations of Brown Pelicans have been negatively impacted by human activity in the past, but conservation efforts have been successful in increasing their populations in several areas. Continued conservation efforts and habitat protection are vital to ensure the long-term survival of this fascinating bird species.

The Brown Pelican is a unique and fascinating bird species characterized by its distinct physical adaptations, foraging behaviors, and vocalization patterns. Its survival has been threatened by a variety of factors, including habitat loss, pollution, hunting, and pesticides, but conservation efforts have successfully increased their populations in several areas.

Understanding the Brown Pelican’s biology, behavior, reproduction, and demographics is important for enhancing conservation efforts and protecting this species for future generations to appreciate. With continued conservation efforts and protection of their habitats, we can secure the survival of these extraordinary colonial birds along the coastlines of North and South America.

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