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Species Database

Pelecanus occidentalis - Brown Pelican

Brown Pelican image

Geographic range:

Atlantic Ocean, Pacific Ocean, and Gulf Coast of North, South and Central America north to Nova Scotia

Key features:

Never all white, although the head can be yellow-white. Usually a dark grey or brown feather color.

Similar species:

Pelecanus erythrorhynchos -- American White Pelican


bay (rocky shore), bay (sandy shore), estuary, exposed rocky shore, exposed sandy beaches, kelp forest, protected rocky shore, protected sandy beaches

Primary common name:

Brown Pelican

General grouping:

Seabirds and shorebirds

ITIS code:


Geographic Range

Range Description:

Pelecanus occidentalis can be found in coastal areas along the Atlantic Ocean, Pacific Ocean, and Gulf Coast of North, South and Central America north to Nova Scotia.


bay (rocky shore), bay (sandy shore), estuary, exposed rocky shore, exposed sandy beaches, kelp forest, protected rocky shore, protected sandy beaches

Habitat notes:

Pelecanus occidentalis is a coastal bird that is rarely found away from the ocean. While this bird is rarely seen inland, it can be found resting on piers, beaches, rocks and at the ocean surface. They nest on islands.


Relative abundance:

Pelecanus occidentalis is widespread and fairly common.

Species Description

General description:

Pelecanus occidentalis is the smallest member of the seven species in the Pelican family, family Pelecanidae. It is also the only member whose plumage is dark and the only one that plunges from the air into the water to catch its food. There are four subspecies, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, the California brown pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis carolinensis, Eastern brown pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis occidentalis, Caribbean brown pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis urinator, Galapagos brown pelican.

Distinctive features:

Pelecanus occidentalis is a large, dark waterbird that has a distinctive large pouch hanging from the lower half of its immense bill. It has a long neck, short tail, and long, broad wings. The black legs are short and the feet are wide, webbed and slaty. The eyes are yellow. The nonbreeding adult has a grayish brown body with a black belly and a white head and neck that is often washed with yellow. The breeding bird can be distinguished by its dark chestnut hindneck and a yellow patch that appears above the foreneck. Also during breeding season, the usually gray bill becomes red tipped and the usually black throat pouch becomes olive to red in color. Immature birds have dark heads and white bellies with a gray bill and pouch. The birds acquire adult plumage by the third year.

Pelecanus occidentalis can be distinguished from the American White Pelican, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos, which is bright white, with black along the back wing edge and a bright orange bill and pouch.


Pelecanus occidentalis can grow to a length of 127 cm with a wingspan of 233 cm and a weight of 4.5 kg. The males grow slightly larger than the females.

Natural History

General natural history:

Pelecanus occidentalis is a very gregarious bird, living in flocks of both sexes throughout the year. They have internal air sacs beneath their skin and in their bones that keep them incredibly buoyant on the water. Their pouch, besides acting as a dip net, is also pulsated in extreme heat to allow cooling. They are incredibly graceful in the air, but clumsy on land. In flight, they fly in groups, with their long necks folded back on the body. They fly with low, regular wingbeats, often in V formation, but also in regular lines or in single file skimming the tops of waves. They can travel long distances flying as close as two feet above the cresting waves as winds create a rolling thermal updraft helping to lift the birds above the wave crests and the airflow around their wings reduces drag. The voice of Pelecanus occidentalis is usually silent, especially away from the nesting colony, though on occasion they will display low, hoarse calls. Nestlings, however, will squawk for food.

Pelecanus occidentalis was listed as endangerd in 1970 due to severe declines in the population from the use of the pesticide DDT. The birds consumed fish that contained DDT from agricultural runoff. In turn, DDT affected their metabolism, causing their eggshells to become thinner and more fragile to the point that the young could not survive. Pelecanus occidentalis was considered endangered in 1970 and the EPA banned the use of DDT in 1972. On the East Coast, Pelecanus occidentalis has fully recovered, however on the West Coast they remain and endangered species. Currently there are only 4,500 to 5,000 breeding pairs of Pelecanus occidentalis off California.


Pelecanus occidentalis feeds almost entirely on fish, including anchovies, herring, Clupea sp., Pacific mackerel, Scomber australasicus, minnows and sardines. Infrequently they will eat crustaceans and on occasion they will scavenge handouts from fishermen.

Feeding behavior


Feeding behavior notes:

Pelecanus occidentalis feeds alone or in groups and makes spectacular dives, bill-first into the water. Their impressive eyesight allows them to spot fish from heights of 6 – 20 m. They often go after schooling fish close to the water’s surface. They dive steep and fast for the fish, with their heads pointed straight down and their wings folded back. They plunge into the water at full speed and thankfully, their blow is cushioned by air sacs under their skin, which also help bring them to the surface. Pelecanus occidentalis’s bill can hold nearly three gallons of fish and water which is three times more than its stomach can hold. Therefore, at the end of a successful dive, Pelecanus occidentalis drains the water from its pouch and swallows the fish whole.

August - November


Pelecanus occidentalis disperses widely in the late summer after breeding and often moves north along the coast.

June - August


Pelecanus occidentalis nests in colonies usually on islands, often with herons and other waterbirds. In California, they breed on the Channel Islands. Males pick out the nesting sites and perform an advertising display which attracts the female. Once the pair forms a bond, the males gather materials while females use to build the nest. The nest begins as a scrape or mound on the ground which is then lined with soil, feathers or vegetation. They may also nest in low trees, bushes, or on cliffs building a nest of vegetation. The female lays a brood of two to four, though usually three, chalky white eggs each year. Both parents are involved in incubation, which lasts about 30 days. Unlike most birds, which warm their eggs with the skin of their breast, Pelecanus occidentalis incubates with its feet. They hold the eggs under the wide webbing of their feet, essentially standing on the eggs to warm them. It is this behavior that made the thinning of eggshells from DDT so dangerous to this species. Once the chicks are born, both parents participate in regurgitating food for their young. The young birds can walk out of the nests after they are about five weeks old, but those born in tree nests will remain for a couple more weeks until they are ready for their first flight. After fledging, the young gather in groups, but the parents recognize and continue to feed their own young.
Click on an image below to view a larger version in the SIMoN Photo Library. You will also be able to view important information on each photo such as photographer, date, caption and more.
Alden, P., F. Heath, R. Keen, A. Leventer, and W. Zomlefer. 2002. National Audubon Society Field Guide to California. A.A. Knopf, New York, NY.
Dunn, J.L. 1999. Birds of North America. National Geographic, Washington, D.C. 464 p.
Cornell Lab of Ornithology
All About Birds

Monterey Bay Aquarium. Online Field Guide, 2008.

Seattle Audubon Society.