Brown Pelican

Brown Pelican
Pelecanus occidentalis



Brown Pelicans are one of the largest birds within Gulf Islands National Seashore and are sometimes seen perched on the fishing piers or flying in groups, over the waves in gliding unison.

Brown pelicans are hard to miss with their large pouched bill, brownish gray feathers, rich chestnut hind neck, yellow crown and throat. In the park, brown pelicans can be found around the coast perched on posts, boats, docks, breakwaters and offshore rocks. If pelicans look like dinosaurs, it's because the earliest pelican fossil was a skull found in France from the Oligocene epoch around 30 million years old-- with striking resemblance to their modern-day forms. Brown pelicans are the smallest of the nine species of pelican weighing in a little more than seven pounds and a length of 3-5 feet.

The brown pelican lives on the Pacific, Gulf and Atlantic Coasts of North America. Their broader range includes the Atlantic Coast from Nova Scotia to the Amazon River, and along the Pacific Coast from British Columbia to northern Chile, including the Galapagos Islands. Like many migratory birds, brown pelicans move north to the North American coasts and return southward to warmer areas for the winter.

Brown pelicans are primarily “rough” fish-eaters consuming fish such as menhaden, herring, sheepshead, pigfish, mullet, grass minnows, topminnows, and silversides. These large birds typically plunge into the water for their food. After spotting fish, pelicans fold back their winds and bank left to avoid injuring their trachea and esophagus, which run along the right side of their neck. Pelicans have modifications that allow them to dive from great heights which include air sacs beneath the pelicas skin to cushion the impact and help it resurface. Their dives into the water can be from heights of 60-100 feet.

Pelicans make nests on the ground, cliff, or on low trees such as mangroves. Nests (built by females, with materials gathered by males) may be a scrape in soil, vegetated spots among sand dunes, mounds of debris, or large stick nests in a tree. They are monogamous breeders only within each breeding season and nest March through May.

Between the 1940s and 1960s brown pelicans were almost wiped out from North America (particularly the Gulf Coast) because of the invention and overuse of pesticides. According ti the US Fish & Wildlife Service, pelicans were affected because “when pelicans ate fish contaminated with DDT, the eggs laid had shells so thin that they broke during incubation. The brown pelican was listed under the Endangered Species Act from 1970 because of these heavy population declines.

In 1972 the Environmental Protection Agency banned the use of DDT in the United States. Though once on the brink of extinction between the 1940s and 1960s, brown pelican populations have since recovered. In 2009, thanks to these efforts and more, the brown pelican was removed from the Endangered Species list.


Brown pelican. Smithsonian's National Zoo (2018, June 28).

"Brown Pelican." Audubon. March 03, 2016.

Brown Pelican. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. November 2009.

Nellis, David W. (2001). Common Coastal Birds of Florida and the Caribbean. Pineapple Press Inc. p. 99. ISBN 978-1-56164-191-8.

Last updated: December 4, 2019

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