The brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) is a common American pelican species found on coastlines of both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It is best known for its large gular sac, or “pouch,” which it uses to hold prey that it has captured. It nests in secluded colonies.
The brown pelican is the national bird of Saint Martin, Barbados, Saint Kitts and Nevis, and the Turks and Caicos Islands. It is the state bird of Louisiana.
There are several subspecies of brown pelican:
- Pelecanus occidentalis occidentalis, Caribbean and northern South America
- Pelecanus occidentalis carolinensis, Atlantic coast of North America and both coasts of Central America
- Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, Pacific coast of the United States, Canada, and Mexico
- Pelecanus occidentalis murphyi, Pacific coast of Central and South America
- Pelecanus occidentalis urinator, endemic to the Galápagos Islands
Based on locality, the subspecies found in the Gulf of Fernandez is most likely P. o. murphyi or P. o. carolinensis.
Brown pelicans are birds with mostly dark brown plumage, with white to pale yellow necks and black feet and legs. Though they are quite large, with a wingspan of 1.8 to 2.5 meters, they are the smallest species of pelican. Like their larger relatives, their most distinguishing feature is their long, 23-34 centimeter beak, which has a hooked tip and a large pouch. Their legs are short, and all four of their toes are webbed. Their large wingspan allows them to soar quite well, and they often glide low over the water while searching for fish to eat.
During the non-breeding season, adults have white on the head and neck, and the skin around the eyes is dull gray. As the breeding season approaches, the head and neck turn creamy yellow, and the skin around the eyes turns pink. The bill’s tip becomes pinkish-red to pale orange during courtship, with the very tip being brighter red; the pouch becomes black. The bill becomes pale gray later in the breeding season.
Hatchlings, like most birds, cannot fly immediately; their flight feathers grow in later. They are born pink, turning gray or black after four days to two weeks. Following this they develop a coat of white, gray, or black down. Juveniles can be distinguished by their grayish color and dusky brown head, neck, and thighs. The tail and flight feathers are browner, and the abdomen is white; the underparts are paler overall than those of the adult. The bill is gray, with yellow near the tip, and the pouch is dull pink.
Adult plumage grows in at three years old.
There is little sexual dimorphism in the brown pelican, but females are slightly smaller. The head feathers of the male are a little more rigid.
Brown pelicans are coastal-dwelling marine birds, and are found on the Atlantic and Pacific coastlines of North and South America. It is seen near shores; it avoids the open ocean. Typical habitats include estuaries, bays, and mangrove swamps. They can be seen roosting on rocks, sandy beaches, mudflats, and artificial structures; at times they may rest on the water.
These birds are found in the Americas and live on both the Atlantic and Pacific shores. Their range extends from the Carolinas in North America to the Amazon estuary in South America. On occasion they may venture as far north as southern Canada on both coasts. There are five subspecies, four of which live along different stretches of American coastline; the fifth is endemic to the Galápagos Islands and lives nowhere else.
In some regions, such as Costa Rica, the brown pelican is a migratory bird. It nests in the south and travels north along the coast during summer. Generally it stays close to shore, rarely venturing more than twenty miles from land; however, some are known to nest on offshore islands in the Caribbean to the east and the Gulf of Fernandez to the west. Isla Nublar is known to host a fairly sizable brown pelican population, and it is the largest bird on the island. Here they are dispersal residents, nesting on the island during the breeding season and flying north when the weather gets warmer. On Isla Nublar, they can be seen as late as early June, and return during the winter. Their habitats were disturbed by human activity from the 1980s until somewhat recently. The island was used to build a de-extinction theme park, first called Jurassic Park and then renamed Jurassic World for the twenty-first century; in 2005 the park’s holding company agreed to protect Isla Nublar’s ecosystem, including its migratory bird habitats. Jurassic World was closed in 2015, and then in 2018 most of the inland habitat was destroyed by an eruption of Mount Sibo in the north. With the de-extinct fauna mostly killed off or removed from the island, the pelicans are no longer threatened when they nest on Isla Nublar. The now-abandoned Jurassic World Lagoon in the island interior provides them with an additional source of salt water to feed from.
Since it is not usually kept as a pet or in zoos, the brown pelican has not been introduced to new habitats. The only way humans inadvertently bring it to new places is through overseas transport, on the rare occasion that a pelican resting on a ship is brought far from where it intended to go. Brown pelicans are not considered an invasive species anywhere at this time, although human activity can disrupt their normal migratory patterns.
Behavior and Ecology
Brown pelicans are mostly diurnal.
Diet and Feeding Behavior
This bird is a piscivore, feeding almost entirely on fish. However, it will eat amphibians, crustaceans, small reptiles, and even small birds or their eggs at times. Menhaden account for 90% of its diet; it also eats large amounts of anchovies. On some occasions, they may be cannibalistic, eating eggs or hatchlings of their own species.
To catch fish, the brown pelican will fly up to 70 feet in the air and search the shallower parts of the ocean for schools of fish. It will then dive beak-first into the water, opening its beak to capture fish in its bill’s large gular sac. The pelican may carry its prey to a safe location to swallow, or gulp it down while floating on the water. It spills out the water from its pouch before swallowing.
As a gregarious animal, the brown pelican travels in flocks. Many colonies can be found in the same area, and nesting territories may be only a few feet apart. Flocks consist of both sexes and various age groups and persist throughout the year. Brown pelicans fly in groups on most occasions, either in regular lines or single file. They may sometimes fly in a V formation. Brown pelicans are often seen flying low over the water’s surface when in level flight.
During a breeding season, brown pelicans stay in monogamous pairs, though these pairs usually do not last through multiple seasons. They arrive to their breeding grounds in the spring, males selecting spots to display to females with head movements. When a female approaches, both sexes will display to each other using head motions and vocalizations.
Once the pair bond is established, obvious communication is minimal between them. Secluded areas, often on islands, are used as nesting sites. The pelican may nest in sand dunes, shrubbery, and mangroves, sometimes nesting on cliffs, but rarely in bushes or small trees. Females build the nests out of pebbles and plant material, lining the nest with feathers and surrounding it with a rim of soil that may be up to ten inches high. Nests are often several feet above ground level.
Two or three, or sometimes four, ovular chalky white eggs are laid in the nest. Eggs are about three inches long and two inches wide. Both the male and female care for the eggs, which take roughly thirty days to incubate. The hatchlings fledge after a little over sixty days, at which point they join with other juveniles in groups called pods. The first fledgling is usually the most successful, with each successively younger fledgling having a lesser chance of survival.
The parents feed their fledglings regurgitated fish. The fledglings can walk after about thirty-five days, leaving the nest for the first time. After seventy to ninety days, they can fly, and begin to become independent. Maturity is reached at five years old, and they may live for around thirty years.
Brown pelicans are not extremely vocal, but they may make many kinds of harsh grunting sounds during courtship displays. Adults may make croaking noises, while young make squealing cries.
This bird is a major predator of fish and helps to regulate their populations in nearshore environments. While it is mostly a piscivore, it will sometimes feed on land or on water too shallow for most fish; here it will feed on amphibians, crustaceans, eggs, and even smaller birds.
It is sometimes the target of kleptoparasitism, in which other animals such as gulls and skuas attempt to steal food from it. Various birds of prey, as well as large reptiles, are predators of juveniles and eggs. Sea lions and sharks may sometimes prey on adults, but the adults are generally too large to suffer predation from terrestrial animals.
Some carnivorous dinosaurs may have preyed on the adults on Isla Nublar. The pelicans would not have been able to threaten most dinosaur species as they were too large, but may have fed upon eggs and the juveniles of the smallest species such as Compsognathus and Microceratus. Since it is the largest bird species to visit Isla Nublar, it is probably dominant over other coastal species in its environment here.
Due to their diet of fish, particularly mullets, the brown pelican is a host to various parasitic worms.
Brown pelicans are a very familiar bird in the coastal Americas and feature in the coats of arms of several countries and states. It is the national bird of Saint Martin, Barbados, Saint Kitts and Nevis, and the Turks and Caicos Islands. Since 1902, it has featured on the state seal of Louisiana, USA; an image of a brown pelican and its offspring was added to the state’s flag in 1912. The brown pelican is Louisiana’s state bird, being used as mascots of local universities and sports teams, and one of Louisiana’s nicknames is “the Pelican State.”
In art, particularly Christian artworks, the pelican is often used as a symbol of love, self-sacrifice, and motherhood. This is due to the misconception that pelicans feed their own blood to their offspring to nourish them when food is impossible to find.
Because it is threatened by habitat loss, overfishing, and climate change, the brown pelican is sometimes bred in captivity to release back into the wild. This was a major part of its successful reintroduction in the American South, with organizations such as the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries being major contributors. The brown pelican is easily fed as it will eat most types of fish. If it is being bred for release, the health of their flight muscles is paramount, as is their ability to catch live food in the water. As they grow, they must be housed in larger habitats where they can exercise, and should eventually be taught to catch fish on its own. It is important to reinforce this independence; once released into the wild, it must not rely on humans for food.
The brown pelican suffered a massive population decline in the United States with the widespread use of DDT, a pesticide used in agriculture. Research at the University of Tampa used this species as a research subject to determine why DDT has such an impact on birds, eventually discovering that this pesticide negatively affects the pelicans’ ability to form healthy eggshells. The affected shells are too thin, and the embryo within the egg dies. This research led to the banning of DDT in the United States by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1972. Brown pelicans are widely used for ecological research such as this, since they are a large, commonly-available migratory animal and a good indicator of an ecosystem’s health.
This was one of the first bird species to gain federal attention in the United States for environmental reasons. In 1903, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt designated Pelican Island (now a National Wildlife Refuge) as a preserve explicitly to protect this bird from overhunting.
Brown pelicans in the United States are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. The use of the pesticide DDT in the Untied States severely impacted the brown pelican’s population, causing its near-disappearance from some of its North American range and resulting in widespread reproductive failure between the 1940s and 1960s. It was listed as an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 1970, remaining endangered until 2009. The United States banned DDT in 1972 and implemented environmental regulations on pesticides which have helped the pelican populations rebound, and they are now globally ranked at Least Concern by the IUCN. However, they are still endangered locally in parts of their range, and are impacted by environmental disasters such as oil spills.
The success of seabirds such as the brown pelican is used as an indicator of upcoming changes to fishery success. Since environmental and climate events affect seabirds very quickly, a sudden drop in seabird populations warns fisheries that lean times are fast approaching. Because they are easily observed, brown pelicans are useful as an indicator species, and ensuring that their populations are protected is very beneficial to fisheries; however, protecting the environment is controversial in capitalist societies such as the United States because it affects the short-term profits of powerful corporations.
This bird, along with other Central American shorebirds, was protected between 2005 and 2015 on Isla Nublar due to an agreement signed between Masrani Global Corporation and the Costa Rican Environmental Protection Society.
In the United States, it is illegal to hunt, kill, or otherwise harm the brown pelican due to its protected status. In other countries throughout Latin America it is sometimes hunted. Hunters normally target it for its feathers, which have value as decorative items, rather than its meat. The eggs are sometimes collected and eaten.
Brown pelicans are also valued for ecotourism, since they are charismatic fauna that appeal to people who come from more inland regions. They are valuable members of the ecosystem, and can be used as indicators of the ocean’s health; the more pelicans there are, the more fish there must be. Fishing boats can observe congregations of pelicans to determine where the fish live.
Brown pelicans are not generally aggressive and are commonly seen in coastal communities of the Americas, so many of them are accustomed to a human presence. They may still defend themselves if they feel threatened; a pelican has a strong bite and a sharp bill, so it can cause injuries if it pecks or bites at a person. Practice the usual wildlife safety standards when around these birds; do not chase or harass them, and give them a respectable distance. If you need to pass close by one, walk by without making sudden moves that might startle it. If you act uncomfortable as you pass by the pelican, this will give the impression that you anticipate conflict, which will make the bird anxious. As long as you behave as though you are not worried, it is less likely to be wary of you in return.
Regardless of how entertaining it may be, do not feed the pelicans. If they become accustomed to receiving food from people, the chances of an aggressive encounter are increased; associating humans with food will make biting more likely. Should a pelican behave aggressively toward you, use any object you might be carrying to push it away or keep a shield between yourself and it. If you do not have anything to defend yourself with, try to keep its bill away from any exposed skin. You are most likely stronger than a pelican, and it will probably flee once it realizes this.
Behind the Scenes
In Jurassic Park, the brown pelican serves as a reminder that the lineage of theropod dinosaurs continues to thrive in nature in the form of birds.