Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis)

Brown Pelican

[order] Pelecaniformes | [family] Pelecanidae | [latin] Pelecanus occidentalis | [UK] Brown Pelican | [FR] Pelican brun | [DE] Braunpelikan | [ES] Pelicano Pardo | [IT] Pellicano bruno | [NL] Bruine Pelikaan


Genus Species subspecies Breeding Range Breeding Range 2 Non Breeding Range
Pelecanus occidentalis NA, LA coasts, Caribbean
Pelecanus occidentalis californicus coasts of w USA and w Mexican
Pelecanus occidentalis carolinensis Atlantic coasts of temperate and tropical Americas
Pelecanus occidentalis murphyi coasts of w Colombia and Ecuador
Pelecanus occidentalis occidentalis West Indies
Pelecanus occidentalis urinator Galapagos Is.

Physical charateristics

The head is white with a pale yellow wash on the crown; the long bill is greyish; back, rump, and tail are streaked with grey and dark brown; the breast and belly are a blackish-brown; eyes pale yellow; and legs and feet are black. Immatures have brownish- grey necks and white underparts. All pelicans have bills that are as long or longer than their heads. The huge naked skin pouch suspended from the lower half of the hooked bill holds two or three times more than the bird’s stomach-about 3 gallons of water and fish. Pelicans hold their catch and let the water drain from the corners of their mouths before they swallow. Fish are never carried in the pouch, but in the gullet or esophagus. The pouch, besides acting as a dip net, is also pulsated in extreme heat to allow cooling. Pelicaniformes are the only birds that share in common a totipalmate foot, that is, one in which all four toes, including the hind one, are united by a web of skin. Sexes are similar.

Listen to the sound of Brown Pelican

[audio: Pelican.mp3]

Copyright remark: Most sounds derived from xeno-canto

wingspan min.: 200 cm wingspan max.: 240 cm
size min.: 114 cm size max.: 137 cm
incubation min.: 28 days incubation max.: 30 days
fledging min.: 63 days fledging max.: 88 days
broods: 1   eggs min.: 2  
      eggs max.: 3  


Pelecanus occidentalis inhabits shallow inshore waters, estuaries and bays in the Americas, breeding along the Pacific coast from California (USA) to Chile and along the Atlantic coast from South Carolina (USA) through the West Indies to Venezuela, ranging as far as Canada and Tierra del Fuego (Chile) in the non-breeding season.


Pacific, Atlantic, and Gulf coasts north to Nova Scotia, occasionally found inland. Preferred habitats include sandy coastal beaches and lagoons, waterfronts and pilings, and rocky cliffs.


Male pelicans pick out the nesting sites and perform an “advertising” display which attracts the females. Once a pair forms a bond, overt communiction between them is minimal. Pelican nesting peaks during March and April; nests are in colonies either in trees, bushes, or on the ground. Those placed in trees are made of reeds, grasses, straw, and sticks; if on the ground, nests consist of a shallow scrape lined with feathers and a rim of soil built 10-30 cm above the ground. Brown Pelicans lay 2-3 chalky white eggs. Incubation is about 28-30 days; young walk out of the nests on the ground about 35 days after hatching but do not leave treetop nests until about 63 -88 days for their first flight.

Feeding habits

Brown pelicans dive from the air for fish. Menhaden account for 90-95% of their food. They also prey on pigfish, pinfish, herring, sheepshead, silversides, mullet, grass and top minnows, and they sometimes eat crustaceans, usually prawns.


This species has a large range, with an estimated global Extent of Occurrence of 2,400,000 km2. The global population size has not been quantified, but it is believed to be large as the species is described as ‘fairly common’ in at least parts of its range (Stotz et al. 1996). Global population trends have not been quantified, but the species is not believed to approach the thresholds for the population decline criterion of the IUCN Red List (i.e. declining more than 30% in ten years or three generations). For these reasons, the species is evaluated as Least Concern.
Brown Pelican status Least Concern


Most populations are resident and dispersive, some migration, especially in North populations, but movements often erratic, depending on local conditions, and birds may even move North after breeding. Vagrant to British Columbia and Nova Scotia, Canada, and also to Tierra del Fuego.

Distribution map

Brown Pelican range map


Abstract: Previous studies have shown age-related difference..[more]..
Source: The Auk 100: 636-644. July 1983

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