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Brown Pelican Pelecanus occidentalis


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Brown Pelican, summer
credit: Mike Baird/CCSA

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Family: Pelecanidae, Pelicans view all from this family

Description ADULT Has streaked, silvery gray upperparts and pale-streaked, brown underparts. Head and neck are whitish in winter, variably flushed with orange-yellow on crown and forehead, with yellowish pink bill and gray-brown gular pouch; breeding bird is similar but has dark brown on rear of neck. JUVENILE Mainly brown plumage, but with a whitish belly; seen from below in flight, note the pale margin to underwing coverts that forms a subtle stripe.

Dimensions Length: 45-54" (1.1-1.4 m); Wngspn: 7'6" (2.3 m)

Endangered Status The Brown Pelican is on the U.S. Endangered Species List. It is classified as endangered in California, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oregon, Texas, and Washington. Populations along the U.S. Atlantic coast and in Florida and Alabama are no longer considered endangered. Both species of pelicans are sensitive to chemical pollutants absorbed from the fish they eat. Historically, the worst of these has been DDT, which affects calcium metabolism, resulting in thin-shelled eggs that break when moved by the incubating bird. (DDT was also responsible for the decline of the Bald Eagle and the Peregrine Falcon.) Because of its more limited, exclusively coastal range, the Brown Pelican suffered more acutely than its relative, the White Pelican, and its numbers crashed in the 1960s. But after the banning of many pesticides, these familiar birds are staging a comeback, and are even quite common in some East Coast locales.

Habitat Locally fairly common resident on Gulf coast, especially in south Texas and Florida. Feeds in both sheltered bays and relatively exposed seas. Often seen perched on boat moorings and posts. Seldom seen on inland freshwater lakes.

Observation Tips Usually easy to see in suitable coastal locations and typically not bothered by the presence of people, allowing superb views to be obtained. Fishing birds provide a wonderful spectacle and the activities of one diving bird usually quickly attracts a small gathering of feeding pelicans.

Range Western Canada, Florida, Texas, Mid-Atlantic, California, Southwest, Southeast, Northwest

Voice Mostly silent.

Discussion Huge and impressive waterbird. Unmistakably a pelican, given the body shape, huge bill, and expandable gular pouch; mainly dark plumage allows easy separation from American White Pelican. Swims effortlessly and with grace, using large, webbed feet. Also extremely impressive in flight and capable of sustained gliding and soaring. Feeds in a spectacular manner: dives from a considerable height, pulling back the wings at the last second and engulfing fish in expanded gular pouch when submerged. Sexes are similar.