Animal Facts

Brown Pelican

Scientific Name: Pelecanus occidentalis

Fast Fact:

The pelican’s gullet pouch really can “hold more than its belly can” (as claimed by a well-known poem). The pouch holds up to 2½ gallons, the stomach about one gallon.

Brown Pelican

Brown pelicans are the only pelican species that strictly inhabits marine habitats; they are never found more than 20 miles out to sea or inland on fresh water. They prefer shallow inshore waters such as estuaries and bays.

STATUS: Brown pelicans are listed as Least Concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Threats include exposure to DDT, becoming entangled in abandoned fishing lines and flying into overhead wires. Other factors include human disturbance of nesting colonies and reduction of fish stocks by excessive commercial fishing of sardines and other small fish.

HABITAT: Brown pelicans live along the Gulf of Mexico, Florida, and the east coast of the U.S. up to New England. Pacific Coast brown pelicans are found from the central coast of California south to Baja California, Mexico, and the Sea of Cortez.

DIET: Pelicans feed almost exclusively on small fish, including anchovies, sardines, menhaden, and shrimp. While small fish are the major part of their diet, they can eat surprisingly large ones. Brown pelicans also eat some invertebrates, such as squid. They are a familiar sight around fishing ports within their range, where they roost on piers, docks, and fishing boats, ready to catch fish scraps.

PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS: Pelicans are easily identified by their large bills and stretchable pouches. The pouch is used to capture fish, which the pelican usually swallows immediately. Although they are the smallest of the pelicans, brown pelicans are still large seabirds and can weigh up to eight pounds. Males are usually larger and heavier than females. Adults are gray to brown with white and yellowish heads. Pelicans have webbed feet for swimming. Sexual maturity is reached after three to five years. In the wild, brown pelicans may live 15 to 25 years.

Pelican Colonies

Pelicans nest in colonies for safety. Both sexes build the nest, a scrap or debris mound on the ground, or a stick nest in a tree. Nesting on islands is preferred. They usually lay two or three eggs. Both parents care for the naked, helpless chicks. They feed their chicks by regurgitating a kind of “fish soup” until the chicks are two weeks old. During breeding season, pelican colonies are sensitive to disturbance by tourists and fisherman. Adult birds can be frightened off their nests, and newly hatched chicks can die quickly in the blazing sun. Their skittishness is understandable: Many fishermen consider the birds as competitors for fish, and in the past, they often raided pelican colonies to kill the birds.

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