Breeding plummage

Photo Credit: Terry Hartley - Due South Photography

SCIENTIFIC NAME: Pelecanus occidentalis

OTHER NAMES: American brown pelican, common pelican.
STATUS: Breeder. Common on Gulf Coast. Occasional inland. Low Conservation Concern.
DESCRIPTION: The brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) is a fairly large water bird weighing up to eight pounds and can have a wing span of over seven feet. The adult is dark grey to silver in coloration, with a white and brown head and a light yellow crown. Juveniles are grey-brown all over with white under parts. Pelicans have long bills with an expandable pouch that is three times the size of their stomach, short legs and webbed feet.
The brown pelican and the American white pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) are the only pelican species that occur in Alabama.  Five other species inhabit various habitats throughout the world. Brown pelicans are the smallest member of the pelican family and are known for their low soaring over the waters surface and diving after their prey. 
DISTRIBUTION: The brown pelican has a large range extending from North America to South America.  
HABITAT: Strictly a coastal species that is rarely seen inland or far out at sea. Pelicans make extensive use of sand bars, offshore sand bars, and islets for nocturnal roosting and daily loafing, especially by non-breeders and during the non-nesting season. However, some roosting sites may eventually become nesting areas.
FEEDING HABITS: Brown pelicans forage in shallow estuarine and inshore waters, usually close to the coastline. Pelicans look for their prey from the air and then dive into the water to capture it in their expandable pouch. The water is drained from the pouch and then food is swallowed. Pelicans feed on menhaden, mullet, sardines, pinfish, herring, grass and top minnows, anchovies and some crustaceans.
LIFE HISTORY AND ECOLOGY: Brown pelicans nest in colonies, mostly on coastal islands (protection from predators such as raccoons), often with other shore birds such as herons, terns and gulls. Nests are large, flat and created in trees, tops of bushes or found on the ground. Nesting material is brought to the nesting site and the female constructs a nest of interwoven sticks lined with grass or reeds.
Two to three chalky white eggs are laid March thru April that are soon covered in guano as a predator defense. Both males and females share in incubating eggs and chick rearing. Eggs are incubated for 28-30 days and chicks are born pink, naked and helpless. About 35 days after hatching chicks can walk out of nests but do not leave until they are about 63 days of age. Young can usually fly 74 to 76 days after hatching.
Brown pelicans are considered a long lived species as one banded in Brevard, Florida was banded in 1933 and was captured in 1964, 31 years old.
Populations of brown pelicans (especially in California, Texas, and Louisiana) were decimated in the U.S. by pesticides (DDT and related compounds) in the 1950s and 60s. In the U.S. Caribbean, 7% of the pelican population in 1982 died as a result of fish die-offs in connection to chemical runoffs (e.g., organophosphates).
Currently, breeding numbers in most states are stable or increasing. However, pelicans are extremely vulnerable to chemical and pesticide pollution, which results in eggshell thinning and reproductive failure. Other threats to pelican populations include disturbance of nesting birds by humans, declining fish (food) populations, increased turbidity (e.g., from dredging, resulting in reduced visibility of prey); oil and other chemical spills, entanglement in fishing gear, shooting, extreme weather conditions (freezing of soft parts, destruction of nest sites by hurricanes, storms), disease, and parasitism. Human disturbance, such as recreational boating and poaching, not only disrupts reproductive success, but may affect distribution patterns and age structure of pelicans using roosting sites during the nonbreeding season (Jaques and Anderson 1987). Habitat degradation affects both roosting and nesting patterns. On the Gulf Coast, nesting efforts have failed because nesting sites are susceptible to flooding as a result of continued site erosion (McNease et al. 1992).
The Brown pelican was first listed as Endangered on June 2, 1970. It is currently designated as Endangered in its entire range, except Florida and Alabama. It was removed from the endangered list in Florida and Alabama on February 4, 1985.
Field Guide to the Birds of North America. Page 40. 1987. Second Addition. National Geographic Society, Washington, D.C., USA
Terres, J.T. 1980. The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. Pages 682-683. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, New York, USA.
AUTHOR: Ericha Nix, Wildlife Biologist, Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, May 2006