Species Spotlight: Brown Pelican

There are only about seven or eight species of pelican in the world. The brown pelican, found on the West Coast from California south to Chile and on the East Coast from Maryland south to Venezuela, is wonderfully unique, with a large bill, pale neck and dark body. Its beak is about 10 inches in length, with a hooked tip and a huge pouch, and it has short legs and webbed toes. With a wingspan extending more than six feet long, the brown pelican soars well and glides low over the water.

The brown pelican is the only species of pelican that is strictly marine in habitat, never found more than 20 miles out to sea or inland on fresh water. These birds feed by plunge-diving from high in the air, using the force of impact to stun small fish before scooping them up and swallowing them. This unique way of scavenging for food lends itself to shallow inshore waters such as estuaries and bays, and these birds are a familiar sight around fishing ports, where they roost on piers, docks and fishing boats while feeding on scraps.

Brown pelicans prefer to make their nests on islands. On the Southeast coast, it is often in mangroves, where the birds build a rather flimsy nest of sticks, reeds, bones and seaweed. On islands without predators, they often build on the ground. Brown pelicans nest in colonies, and are sensitive to disturbance by tourists and fishermen while breeding. In early spring, the females usually lay two or three eggs, and incubation takes about one month. Both parents care for the helpless chicks, and fledging requires 63 to 76 days, with little or no post-fledging care depending on the length of time the young have spent in the nest. The life span for brown pelicans is 10 years in the wild and about 25 years in captivity. 

Although globally abundant, brown pelicans were once severely endangered in the United States. The major cause of their decline was pesticide poisoning. Since DDT was banned, however, there has been a full recovery on the East Coast, with other populations showing steady improvement. Threats today include becoming snarled 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. The brown pelican remains protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. While they do suffer from these types of danger, brown pelicans are an excellent example of species recovery.

These beautiful birds can be found in the Presidio of San Francisco, Channel Islands National Park and Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Don’t forget to let the Oh, Ranger! ParkFinder app help you get there!

Fun Facts:
- The brown pelican's eyes are bigger than its stomach. While its pouch holds about three gallons, its stomach can only hold about one gallon.
- The brown pelican feeds its young by regurgitation.
-Both male and female birds of this species look alike.
-The brown pelican is the symbol of Louisiana.
-The brown pelican is the smallest species of pelican.
- There are air sacs under the front of their bodies that cushion brown pelicans against the force of hitting the surface of the water when they dive for food.

Image courtesy of NPS