Brown Pelican

Brown Pelican

Brown Pelican

Pelecanus occidentalis

Status: Delisted

Classification: Bird


Brown pelicans are large birds with long, thick bills. At the base of the gray bill is an expandable pouch that the pelican uses to hold food. Adult brown pelicans have brownish-gray bodies, and the head is bright yellow and white. A brown pelican’s neck can change color from white to brown during the breeding season. But before they reach maturity, brown pelicans are entirely brown.


Brown pelicans live year-round in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and the southeastern coast. They also migrate to spend winters in central California and summers on the Northwest and mid-Atlantic coasts. They find habitats around coastal beaches and lagoons. Although their native range includes the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf coasts, brown pelicans spend a lot of time on small islands away from populated areas.


Brown pelicans search for fish by flying low over the water. When they spot potential food, they dive down and use their bill as a giant scoop to pick up fish and water. The water will drain out the sides of the bill's pouch and the fish will be pushed to the back of the throat. Sometimes smaller birds will try to steal fish right out of a pelican’s mouth.

Life History

These birds usually nest in colonies. While most birds incubate their eggs using the skin of their breast, pelicans use their feet to warm their eggs.


Brown pelicans were federally listed as endangered in the 1970s and '80s because of pesticides that entered their food chain, but their populations have recovered.

Fun Fact

Normally a silent bird, brown pelicans will emit a low grunt on their nesting grounds.


Animal Diversity Web, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology

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