Brown Pelican

Brown Pelican, California

Brown Pelican, California

This bird is a jubilant success story in conservation.  The species was nearly extinct in the 1970s due to pesticides, primarily DDT.  Today the population is estimated at 650,000 individuals with a Conservation Status of “least concern.”


In the early 1970s a Tampa University research group in Florida discovered that DDT and other pesticides were responsible for thinning the brown pelican eggshell to the point that it could not support the embryo.  The population dropped drastically.  The bird was declared endangered, the research group was successful in banning the use of DDT in Florida, and other states followed.  More info here.


This distinctive bird occupies the western, eastern, and Gulf coasts of North America.  A large bird weighing 6-12 pounds (2-5kg) with an impressive wingspan of 6-8 feet (1-2m), it is still able to coolly cruise just inches above the water’s surface in spite of its large size.  We often see them in single file over shallow water as they hunt.  Their diet is almost entirely fish (menhaden, smelt, anchovies, etc.) but they will also eat crustaceans, mainly prawns.


Brown Pelicans, California

Brown Pelicans, California

Of the eight pelican species in the world, there are two types:  those that fish from the air (Brown Pelican and Peruvian Pelican), and those that forage while swimming.  The plunge diving of the brown pelican is especially entertaining to watch.  They spot their prey from as high as 60 feet up, then plunge headfirst into the water, coming to surface with the fish in its very large and expandable bill.  Pelecanus occidentalis then tilts the bill down to drain water out of the pouch, and tosses the head back to swallow.


So lucky we are to have these awesome and gregarious birds on earth.


Photo credit:  Athena Alexander



54 thoughts on “Brown Pelican

    • You’re welcome, pc. There are more conservation successes out there than we think, thanks to many, many people who care. Very glad you enjoyed the post today my friend. 😀

    • It’s amazing to have this kind of turnaround in a relatively short period. I, too, hope the brown pelicans remain on earth for a long, long time. Many thanks Indah! ?D

  1. Dearest Jet,
    If you were my high school biology teacher, I would have gotten much better grades!
    This is such an interesting post and hooray for those who discovered DDT was threatening the pelican population and successfully were able to get it banned…These brown pelicans are spectacular…I can imagine them, swooping down and grabbing a fish from 60 feet up!
    Thanks always for your insightful posts!
    Have a lovely start to your week!

    • Oh your comment just made my day Lia! Thanks so much for your kind words. The story of the recovering brown pelicans is a great one, I am glad you enjoyed it, and perhaps you will get the pleasure of enjoying them in the wild some day. Always a delight to share info with you, Lia — 😀

  2. My gosh, NEVER would I have ever imagined these birds to have been endangered. Thank goodness for the research that saved this species and no doubt helped a lot of others at the same time! 😉

    • It’s incredible, isn’t it, Joanne? We see them now on our North American coasts and they’re abundant, active, healthy, and reproducing. But they were dangerously close to extinction not that long ago. I am glad you enjoyed that heroic story, Joanne — I very much appreciate your comment. 😀

  3. I’ve seen these guys on a visit to California. I love their plumage—so pretty! What a great success story—Rachel Carson would be happy to hear of this one. Here in Calgary, American White Pelicans like to gather around the weir on the Bow River to fish for trout in the summertime. They are fun to watch! :))

    • I agree, Jeannie, pelicans are so fun to watch. Although the white pelicans do not plunge dive, they are fun to watch because they work in groups to catch the fish. So glad you enjoyed today’s post my friend! 😀

    • We were on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean and a line of them flew right past us as they quietly descended to the beach. I would guess you’ve seen your fair share of pelicans, Mary, being the ocean lover you are. Many thanks! 🙂

  4. I often wonder when watching that dramatic plunging Jet why they don’t have constant migraine headaches or wear neck collars from what surely has to be vertebral challenged activity.

      • A wonderful bird is the pelican,
        His bill will hold more than his belican,
        He can take in his beak
        Enough food for a week
        But I’m damned if I see how the helican!

      • OMG I laughed so hard at this! I’m still laughing as I type! Thanks so very much, my poetic friend, for adding a joyful burst to my morning. So much appreciated, Mike. 😀 😀

    • I agree, RH. I sat and watched fishermen in Belize cleaning fish on the water’s edge, and what an audience of pelicans he had that day! Many thanks! 😀

  5. I just love watching a flock of pelicans soar single-file, just above the ocean. So graceful – esp. for such an ungraceful-looking bird!

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