Brown Pelican

Brown Pelican
Photographer: Alan D Wilson of

Brown Pelican
Photographer: Alan D Wilson of

Brown Pelican
Photographer: Alan D Wilson of

Brown Pelican Range Map (Americas)
Brown Pelican Range Map (Americas)
Latin Name Pelecanus occidentalis
Conservation Status Least Concern
Location N, C & S America, Caribbean
Colour Silver Grey & Brown
Length 1 - 1.5 m (3.25 - 5 ft)
Wingspan 1.8 - 2.5 m (5.9 - 8.2 ft)
Weight 2.75 - 5.5 Kgs (6 - 12 lbs)
Life Expectancy 15 - 20 Yrs

Main Characteristics

Brown Pelicans are the smallest species of pelican. They are between 1 and 1.5 m (3.25 - 5 ft) in length, they have a wingspan between 1.8 and 2.5 m (5.9 - 8.3 ft) and they weigh between 2.75 and 5.5 kgs (6 - 12 lbs).

They have a white head with a pale yellow crown. Their back, tail and rump are silver/grey and brown in colour and their breast and belly are darker brown. Their eyes are pale yellow and they have black legs and feet.

They have an extremely long bill with a large pouch attached on the lower half. They use this to catch fish and they hold their catch, letting the water drain out of the corners of their mouth, before they swallow the fish. This pouch can hold approximately 3 gallons of water and fish, which is 2 - 3 times more than their stomach can hold.

Adult Brown Pelicans are generally silent when they are away from the breeding colony but when they do vocalize they have low, hoarse calls.

In flight they hold their head back on their shoulders and they rest their bill on their folded neck. They usually fly in regular lines or in single file.


Brown Pelicans live in a variety of habitats on the coasts of North, South and Central America and the Caribbean. They are gregarious birds and they roost, nest, migrate and feed in groups.

After the breeding season is over they move further north along the coast, then they return south to warmer waters for the winter months.


Brown Pelicans feed on fish such as menhaden, herring, pigfish, silversides, and mullet. They also occasionally feed on crustaceans such as prawns.

They are the only pelican to plunge dive to catch their prey, other species fish from the surface of the water. They glide low over the water and upon spotting a fish they fly up to 10 m (30 ft) into the air, fold back their wings and plunge into the sea.


Brown Pelicans nest during March and April and males pick out a nesting site. They nest in colonies and nests are either constructed on the ground, in trees or in bushes.

2 - 3 chalky white eggs are laid and are incubated by both parents for 28 - 30 days. Initially the chicks are fed regurgitated food by their parents but when they reach 10 days old the chicks are able to take fish from their parents' bill.

If Brown Pelicans have nested on the ground, the chicks are able to leave the nest when they are around 35 days old, but if the nest is situated in a tree or bush the chicks do not leave the nest until they take their first flight at 63 - 88 days old.

Brown Pelicans reach sexual maturity at 2 years of age.


Chicks may fall prey to gulls, skunks, and feral cats but adult Brown Pelicans have few natural predators.


Subspecies of the Brown Pelican include:

California Brown Pelican
(Pelecanus occidentalis californicus)

Eastern Brown Pelican
(Pelecanus occidentalis carolinensis)

Caribbean Brown Pelican
(Pelecanus occidentalis occidentalis)

Interesting Facts

The Brown Pelican is the state bird of Louisiana.

The Brown Pelican is protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

Pelicans and their relatives make up the order "Pelecaniformes" and they can be distinguished from other birds by having feet with all four toes webbed - totipalmate.

Similar Birds

American White Pelican
Great White Pelican

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