Brown Pelican

(Pelecanus occidentalis)

Brown Pelican

Pelicans are one of the largest birds in North America. The brown pelican, though still a very large bird, is the smallest of the seven species of pelicans. It has a long neck and a brownish, gray body.


Mating season: Pacific Coast from Southern California to Chile, Atlantic Coast from North Carolina to Chile, and Gulf Coasts. After mating season can be found as far north as the Canadian coasts.

Physical Characteristics

  • Length: 41" - 50"
  • Long, flat bill, grayish-black in color
  • Bill length approx. 13 - 14.5" in males and 10 - 13" in females
  • Large throat sac
  • Wingspan 6' to 7'
  • Weight appox. 6 - 12lbs
  • All brown to gray feathers
  • Pale, yellowish color on the crown
  • Small eyes, yellow in color
  • Short legs with webbed feet, legs and feet are black
  • Short tail features that are brown in color
  • Fleshy skin around eyes and feet


Pelicans eat mostly fish, consuming about 4 lbs per day. Unlike white pelicans, who dunk their heads under water to hunt, brown pelicans hunt by diving from great heights into the water to catch their prey. On the eastern coast of the United States, they consume mostly menhaden, an abundant fish commercially used for fish meal and oil. On the west coast they eat mostly anchovies and sardines. They also consume herring, sheepshead, pigfish, mullet, grass minnows, topminnows, and silversides.



The pelican can hold up to 3 gallons of water in its expandable throat sac. If a fish is caught in the pouch with the water, the pelican will tilt the bill downward to drain the water out so they can swallow just the fish.


The brown pelican is mostly silent unless it it in the vicinity of the mating colony. There, the adults call with a sound like a cross between a frog and a duck, a kind of croaking, barking call. The hatchlings make a high-pitched squawking noise.


Loss of habitat or human incursion into nest sites is a major cause of death for young pelicans. Brown pelicans may lay 50% to 100% less eggs if their nesting sites are disturbed. Floods, drought and contamination also may reduce pelican populations. Feral cats, skunks, and gulls may consume young hatchlings or eggs, decreasing the number of pelicans that survive into adulthood. Entanglement in fishing lines is a hazard for the coastal brown pelican near marinas. Adults have few predators.

Behavior and Lifecycle

Pelicans live in colonies that consist of hundreds of pairs. They migrate to their nesting area in the spring months and nest from April through early June. The mating and courtship occur while the nest is being built. Brown pelican nests may be in trees, bushes, or even on the ground. This process takes about a 7 to 10 days. The female will lay a clutch of eggs ranging in size from 1 to 4 eggs. An average clutch is about 3 eggs. The nest is built on the ground with sticks and debris found in the local area. Sometimes the brown pelican will make a nest in a low tree.


Incubation takes about one month. Both the female and male incubate the eggs and care for the young. Not all of the hatchlings survive. The young stay in the nest for about a month. They continue to change and grow as they develop their full plumage. Once they begin to fly, about two months after they hatch, the parents continue to feed and help care for the young until they prepare to migrate south for the winter. The family unit separates when they join a larger colony to prepare for the migration. Brown pelicans breed at 2-3 years of age, though if the colony is well established, breeding may be delayed.

Interesting Facts:

  • Brown pelicans hunt by diving from heights into the water to catch their prey. They are the only species of pelican that hunts in this way.
  • The white and brown pelicans can both hold up to 3 gallons of water in their throat sac.
  • The brown pelican is the only dark pelican.
  • Pelicans fly with their necks tucked back, unlike geese and swans.
  • The brown pelican rarely soars.
  • Brown pelicans get all the water they need from seawater.


Click here to read about the White Pelican.


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