Brown Pelican Fact File


The brown pelican is a large bird that is coloured brown across most of their body feathers. The head colour is highly variable and changes throughout the seasons and with breeding. This colour on the top of the head varies between red, orange, yellow and white. During the breeding season the back and side of the neck will turn dark-brown. Outside of breeding season this is white.

Their legs are grey and short compared to the body. These end with webbed feet. Their bill is incredibly long and underneath is the gular pouch which helps to catch fish. This is 25-38cm (9.8-15in) long and coloured pink on the top and grey on the pouch. The bill is paler on the pacific coast and darker along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

Brown pelicans stand 120cm (48in) tall and weigh 2.7-3.18kg (6-7lbs). Their wingspan is 2.3m (7.6ft).


The brown pelican is a carnivore which feeds on fish and crustaceans. They will also occasionally scavenge carrion and have been seen eating seal pups. Food may also be stolen from other sea birds.

Often they are found near popular fishing spots where they will take fish from fisherman.

To find food the pelican will fly above the water and locate a school of fish. This process is known as plunge diving and they are the only pelican to hunt in this manner. Once they locate these they will drop in to the water, partly folding their wings as they do so. They are not able to dive too deep as they have many air sacs to keep them buoyant on the water.

They will catch fish in their bill and will take in large amount of water with this. They drain out the water before swallowing them as while their beak is full they are unable to take off and as such are vulnerable to predation.

Scientific Name

Pelecanus occidentalis

Conservation Status

Least Concern


120cm (48in)


2.7-3.18kg (6-7lbs)


2.3m (7.6ft)


Average 20-25 years

Record 43 years



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Brown pelicans are native to North, Central and South America along with some of the Caribbean Islands.

They are found in the following countries Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Aruba, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Bermuda, Bonaire, Sint Eustatius and Saba, Brazil, Canada, Cayman Islands, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Curaçao, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Martinique, Mexico, Montserrat, Nicaragua, Panama, Puerto Rico, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Martin, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Sint Maarten, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, Turks and Caicos Islands, United States, Venezuela, British Virgin Islands and the US Virgin Islands.


The brown pelican is found along the coastline in bays and estuaries. Nesting primarily takes place on offshore islands where there are few land predators. On occasion a stray pelican is spotted on an inland lake. They avoid the open ocean.


Brown pelicans are able to breed throughout the year with a peak during March and April. The male will build a nest and display with the hope of attracting a male.

Two types of nest are common. They are either built in a tree or bush out of branches, grass, sticks and straw or a shallow scrape may be dug in to the ground and then lined with feathers.

Following a successful mating the female will deposit her eggs in the nest. One or two eggs is common with three being laid on a rare occasion. The eggs are coloured chalky-white.

Both parents will take responsibility for the eggs and take turns to incubate them. These incubate for 29 days before hatching. At hatching the chicks weigh an average of 63.5g (2.2oz) and their skin is pink and covered with fluff and the feet are white.

To grow the chicks are fed fish which has been regurgitated by the parents. To begin with this is placed on the bottom of the nest but by 10 days old they are able to take this food directly in their bill.

Fledging takes place at 11 weeks old and they are ready to leave their parents by the time they are 3 months old. Those raised in ground nests typically become independent before those which are raised in tree nests. Typically they return to their nest site within the first few years of their life.

A female brown pelican can become sexually mature as early as 1 years old with males maturity delayed slightly till 2 years old.


The brown pelican is capable of flying at 48km/h (30mph). They are typically clumsy during take-off though once in flight they are capable of long flights. They fly with their neck tucked in and the head rested on the back.

Along with being used to help catch fish their gular pouch is used to help regulate their temperature.

Predators and Threats

Natural predators of the brown pelican include cats, raccoons, iguanas, alligators, sharks and sea lions. Their young have been affected by the red imported fire ant.

Humans have affected the population of brown pelicans through ingestion of fishing materials such as hooks, oil spills, hunting, car and boat strikes and electrocution from power lines.

One of the main contributors to their population crashing during the 1960s and 70s was DDT. This chemical caused the shells of their eggs, like those of many birds at this time, to be thin and easily broken. Since this chemical has been banned their population has rebounded succesfully.

Quick facts

The brown pelican is the smallest pelican out of the seven species found on Earth.

Their species name ‘occidentalis’ translates to Western.

Photo Credits

Top and Middle

Public Domain, US Fish and Wildlife Service


Peter Pearsall/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service


Burnie, D., 2011. Animal. 3rd ed. London: DK

Christiansen, P. 2019. Birds. 2nd Ed. London: Amber Books Ltd.

BirdLife International. 2018. Pelecanus occidentalis. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018: e.T22733989A132663224. 2.RLTS.T22733989A132663224.en. Downloaded on 03 June 2020.

Oceana. 2020. Brown Pelican. [online] Available at: <>

[Accessed 3 June 2020]. 2020. Brown Pelican Facts And Information | Seaworld Parks & Entertainment. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 3 June 2020].

MarineBio Conservation Society. 2020. Brown Pelicans ~ Marinebio Conservation Society. [online] Available at:

<> [Accessed 3 June 2020]. 2020. Brown Pelican (Pelecanus Occidentalis) Longevity, Ageing, And Life History. [online] Available at: <>[Accessed 3 June 2020].

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