Red Tide Kills Fish Pelicans Eat

Pelican Facts

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Unique among the world's seven species of pelicans, the Brown Pelican is found along the ocean shores and not on inland lakes. It is the only dark pelican, and also the only one that plunges from the air into the water to catch its food.

Cool Facts

While the Brown Pelican is draining the water from its bill after a dive, gulls often try to steal the fish right out of its pouch. They sometimes even perch on the pelican's head or back and reach in. The pelican itself, however, is not above stealing fish from other seabirds. It also follows fishing boats and hangs around piers for handouts.

The Brown Pelican frequently lowers its head onto its shoulders with the bill open, pulls its head back, and stretches the pouch over its throat and neck. The exposed neck looks like a large lump sticking up out of the pouch.

Unlike most birds, which warm their eggs with the skin of their breasts, pelicans incubate their eggs with their feet. They hold the eggs under the webs that stretch from the front toes to the hind toe, essentially standing on the eggs to warm them. This peculiar incubation method made them vulnerable to the effects of the pesticide DDT. The DDT made the eggshells thin, and the incubating parents frequently cracked their eggs.

The Peruvian race of the Brown Pelican, found along the Pacific Coast of South America from southern Ecuador to Chile, is sometimes considered a separate species. It is larger than the other races, has fine white streaking on the feathers of the under parts, and has a blue pouch in the breeding season. Otherwise, it looks and acts like a Brown Pelican, found in similar coastal environments and plunge-diving for food.


  • Size: 100-137 cm (39-54 in)
  • Wingspan: 200 cm (79 in)
  • Weight: 2000-5000 g (70.6-176.5 ounces)
  • Large, dark waterbird.
  • Long bill with extensible pouch.
  • Legs short.
  • Body large and heavy.
  • Feet webbed.
  • Wings long and broad.
  • Tail short.
  • Soars close to water surface.
  • Dives from the air into the water.
  • Foot webbing includes the hind toe.
  • Adult Breeding (Alternate) plumage: forehead and crown light yellow. Back and sides of neck dark brown. Back and rump striped silver and brown. Wings gray to gray-brown. White stripe along side of neck. Chest and belly black-brown. Shoulders and top of chest striped silver and black. White or yellow triangle at base of throat. Yellow head feathers become white during nesting. Bill pale at base, darker farther out, and yellow at tip. Throat pouch red (on West Coast) or green (East Coast) at base, gray-green farther out.
  • ? Nonbreeding (Basic) plumage: Head pale yellow. Neck white.

Sex Differences

Sexes look alike; males slightly larger.


Juvenile dirty brown all over with white belly, pale line along middle of underwing. Bill gray-brown. Yearling similar, but more gray on back and with some white feathers on sides of head and neck. Bill becomes paler and may have some yellow or orange.

Similar Species

  • White Pelican is bright white, with black along the back wing edge, and a bright orange bill and pouch.
  • Gulls have more pointed and narrower wings.
  • Cormorants are darker and have a long thin neck and a long tail.


Generally silent away from nesting colony. Nestling squawks for food; adults have low, hoarse display calls.


karenia brevis red tide kills food supply of pelicans © 2003 Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Summer Range

Breeds in scattered locations along coasts from Maryland southward around Florida and westward to southern Texas and Mexico, to Honduras. On Pacific Coast from southern California to South America. Also in Caribbean and northern South America. Wanders widely after breeding, north to British Columbia and New England.

Winter Range

Winters along both coasts from central California and Virginia southward to South America.


  • Found in warm coastal marine and estuarine environments.
  • Rare inland.
  • Breeds primarily on islands.


Fish and some marine invertebrates.


Sights prey from air and plunges into water head-first. Traps fish in extended pouch. Drains water out the sides of the bill, and then swallows the fish.


Nest Type

Large flat nest of sticks lined with grasses or leaves. Placed in short trees, shrubs, or on ground. Nests in colonies, often with herons and other waterbirds.

Egg Description

Chalky white

Clutch Size

Usually 3 eggs. Range: 1-4.

Condition at Hatching

Pink, naked, and helpless.

Conservation Status

Shooting for feathers and to "protect" fishing caused declines in pelican populations in the first half of the 20th century. Pesticide poisoning, especially by DDT, caused severe declines across the range in the late 1950's and the extirpation from Louisiana ("the pelican state"). It was listed as Endangered throughout the range in 1970. The ban on DDT led to a population recovery, and it was removed from the Endangered Species list in Atlantic Coast states in 1985. Breeding numbers in most states are stable or increasing, and the total population in the United States now exceeds historical levels.

Other Names

pélican (French)
Alcatraz, pelícano (Spanish)

Sources used to construct this page:

Shields, M. 2002. Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis). In The Birds of North America, No. 609 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA

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