Brown Pelican

Pelecanus occidentalis

Brown Pelican
Tinker & Rove / Flickr / CC by 2.0

Louisiana’s state bird, the brown pelican is also the smallest of the world’s pelican species. With its unique behavior and classic pelican proportions, however, this member of the Pelecanidae bird family is instantly recognizable and a popular bird along coastlines from North America to northern South America. Discover more fun facts about the brown pelican and learn what makes this bird so distinctive and remarkable.

Fast Facts

  • Scientific Name: Pelecanus occidentalis
  • Common Name: Brown Pelican, Louisiana Pelican
  • Lifespan: 25-40 years
  • Size: 40-55 inches
  • Weight: 4-11 pounds
  • Wingspan: 75-80 inches

Brown Pelican Identification

Male and female brown pelicans are similar with a white neck and head and a pale yellow forehead. Their pale eyes have a noticeable flesh ring, and the large, pendulous throat pouch is brownish black, though western populations have a red patch at the base of the pouch in breeding season. The back of the neck varies from white to brown depending on location and breeding status. The wings and back are a silver gray or brown, with a darker chest and abdomen. The legs and webbed feet are dark. Non-breeding plumage is duller overall, and juvenile birds are primarly brown with dark eyes and paler underparts.

Adult brown pelicans are generally silent, though a low croacking or grunting can occasionally be heard. Young birds have a harsh “crak-crak-crak-crak-crak” call as well as a hiss they will use to attract their parents’ attention, and these calls also serve to help the parents recognize their own chicks. 

Brown Pelican Habitat and Distribution

Brown pelicans are coastal birds that can be found year-round along the east coast of North America from Virginia through Central America to the coasts of Colombia and Venezuela as well as throughout the Caribbean. In the west, populations extend from central California south to Ecuador and northern Peru. In areas with deep inland rivers and estuaries, brown pelicans may be seen slightly inland, but these birds generally do not stray far from the coast.

Migration pattern

In both eastern and western brown pelican ranges, birds at the northern reaches may migrate seasonally. These birds are also more likely to be seen further offshore in the nonbreeding winter season, particularly in the Caribbean.

Behavior

Brown pelicans are regularly found in loose flocks and may even hunt in flocks with twisting plunge dives into deep water. In flight, these birds glide effortlessly on their very long, broad wings, often in long, single-file lines or V-shaped flock formations. They may soar high above the water, or could skim just above the waves. Their wing beats are slow and deep, giving them a very deliberate flight appearance. On land, brown pelicans are very bulky and ungainly, with a clumsy gait and unbalanced appearance.

Diet and Feeding

Brown pelicans are piscivorous birds and eat almost exclusively fish, including mullet, anchovies, and herrings. This type of pelican uses hunting plunge dives, but in shallow waters they will also swim and scoop prey into their pouches at the surface. They are often found near marinas and fishing harbors, where they have learned to benefit from fishing activities. Brown pelicans may even follow fishing boats into deeper water, looking for easy foraging or handouts, or they may occasionally feed on dead marine animals or eggs along the shoreline.

Nesting

These are monogamous birds that work as a bonded pair to raise their young. Nests are usually on the ground where they can be concealed by beach grasses or brush, or may be in the top of a flattened tree. The male bird will select the nesting site, then attract a mate with a head-swaying courtship display. The female will build the nest but the male brings the nesting material to her, including seaweed, grasses, twigs, and leaves. Because these are such large birds, the nest can be quite substantial and may reach 30 inches across and up to nine inches deep. These are colonial birds and many pairs may nest in close proximity to each other.

Eggs and Young

Both parents share the responsibility of incubating one annual brood of 2-4 eggs for 28-30 days. The eggs are white with a chalky finish, but often become stained with brown, green, or yellow during the incubation period. Brown pelicans incubate their eggs with their feet.

After hatching, both parents feed the chicks, first by regurgitating already digested fish into the nest, then later by bringing whole fish to the young birds. Chicks may begin to leave a ground nest after 35 days, but if the nest is elevated they will not leave until their first flight at 60-80 days, during which time both parents care for the fledglings. A young brown pelican will care for itself after leaving the nest, but will not reach sexual maturity until it is 3-5 years old.

Brown Pelican Conservation

While brown pelicans are not considered threatened or endangered today, they were previously classified as endangered because of grave population declines from pesticide contamination that created thin eggshells and impacted overall breeding success. As brown pelican populations slowly recovered through the 1980s and 1990s, the birds were delisted in different areas, and were officially removed from the federal endangered species list in 2009.

Despite their recovered populations, these birds are still at grave risk from environmental pollution, particularly oil spills that contaminate nesting areas and introduce toxins to food supplies. Fishing line tangles and bill and throat injuries from fishhooks are also threats to brown pelicans, and the birds can be easily disturbed in their nesting areas.

Tips for Backyard Birders

These are not backyard birds and are rare to find away from coasts. Harbor populations can become accustomed to humans, however, and may even beg for handouts from fishing boats. In some locations, visitors are able to purchase or catch fish to feed brown pelicans and other marine life, but this should only be done where permitted. In many areas, it is illegal to feed brown pelicans.

How to Find This Bird

Brown pelicans are easy to find along coastal beaches in their range, and because of their size and distinctive shape, they are unmistakable to identify. Watch for brown pelicans soaring above the beaches or out over the waves, or look for them perched on piers, docks, jetties, buoys, and marinas, particularly in popular fishing areas.

Brown Pelicans in Culture

Not only are brown pelicans the state bird of Louisiana, but they are also the mascot for the New Orleans Pelicans NBA team as well as a number of schools, including Tulane University, in the brown pelican’s range. The brown pelican is also the official city bird of St. Petersburg, Florida and the national bird of Saint Kitts and Nevis.

Explore More Species in This Family

While there are only eight birds in the Pelicanidae bird family, birders on the lookout for brown pelicans may also see other common beach and waterbirds, different types of seabirds, cormorants, gulls, and ospreys. Don’t forget to check out all our wild bird profile fact sheets to learn more about your favorite bird species in every habitat!