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Brown Pelican

Pelecanus occidentalis

Brown pelicans are large, shore-dwelling birds. They reach sizes up to 48 inches long from head to tail, with a 6-7 foot wingspan and a weight of about 8 pounds. They are strong swimmers and graceful fliers, but are rather clumsy when walking on land. They are long-lived, the oldest individual on record died at 43 years of age.

They can be observed along the coasts from North to South America.

Pelicans are fish eating birds. They have excellent eyesight and hunt by searching for schools of small bait fish while flying over the ocean, sometimes from as high as 50 feet. When pelicans see fish they will dive steeply into the water, often submerging completely, and capture the fish in their large throat pouches. Brown Pelicans are the only pelican bird to use this dramatic hunting style.
Pelicans are highly social birds that often congregate in large flocks throughout much of the year. They also breed in large colonies, which may consist of several hundred pairs, nesting in bushes, or in trees, usually on small estuarine islands where they can be free from disturbance from terrestrial predators. Nests are typically little more than a shallow depression built from grass or reeds, over interwoven sticks on supporting tree branches.

I’ve always found it interesting when an animal’s name seems to describe the animal in some way. You would think that a Brown Pelican would be brown, like a Cardinal is cardinal or Blue Jay is blue. Below are several photos of adult Brown Pelican and a yearling Brown Pelican showing these color variations.

Adult brown pelicans have mostly gray bodies. The head is white and bright yellow. A brown pelican’s neck can change color from white to brown during the breeding season. Immature brown pelicans are entirely brown above with whitish bellies until they reach maturity.

The yearling birds have a lot of learning to do and so don’t feed on their own as well as adults. This results in much more begging from us for food. It also gets them in much more trouble. If you see a Brown Pelican doing something stupid, now you will know by it’s coloring that it is a young one.

Brown Pelican Very Young
Brown Pelican Young Soaring
Brown Pelican Adult Soaring
Brown Pelican Adult
Brown Pelican Adult in Breeding Colors






Dixon Lanier Merritt (1879–1972) was an American poet and humorist. He penned this well-known limerick in 1910.

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!

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