A brown pelican flies just above the surface of the water A brown pelican flies just above the surface of the water
Brown Pelican

Scientific Classification

Common Name
brown pelican
Psittacidae (true parrots)
Genus Species
Pelecanus (a pelican) occidentalis (from the western hemisphere)

Fast Facts

The brown pelican is a large, grayish-brown bird with a blackish belly and a white head and neck. It has a long beak with a thin, membranous pouch.
Approximately 120 cm (48 in.) tall; 210 cm (84 in.) wide
Approximately 2.7 to 3.18 kg (6 to 7 lbs.)
Includes fish and surface minnows
28 to 30 days
Clutch Size
1 to 3 eggs
Sexual Maturity
Approximately 2.5 to 3 years
Life Span
15 to 25 years
American Pacific coast from western Canada to northern Peru and American Atlantic coast from northern United States to northern Brazil; within range, migratory movement from northern to southern regions occurs
Primarily found along coasts and in bays and estuaries
Global: Unknown
IUCN: Endangered (Except along Atlantic coast and Alabama)
CITES: Not listed
USFWS:  Not listed

Fun Facts

Brown pelicans are the only species to dive into the water from 9 m (30 ft) above to capture prey. After catching the prey and a lot of water, they tip their bill downward to drain the water before swallowing the fish.

While brown pelicans are known for diving, they will never be deep divers due to the extensive system of subcutaneous air-sacs that give them their buoyancy in the water.

The pelican's pouch (gular pouch) is used as a dip net to catch fish, which are soon swallowed into the stomach (the center of gravity) so that they can maintain their balance while flying.

They have an extendable sac of skin at the base of their throat, which is capable of holding up to 11 liters (3 gallons) of water, several times more than their belly.

Most fossil species of pelican are placed in the same genus as the modern pelican due to extreme anatomical similarities. This suggests that the present form of pelican has changed very little over the past 30 to 40 million years.

The brown pelican, the smallest of the Pelecanidae family, can fly up to 48 kph (30 mph).

Its gular pouch may be used to disperse heat as well as to collect fish and rainwater.

Brown pelicans are best adapted to living alongside humans. They are frequently seen at fishing ports up and down the coast, opportunistically feeding on fish scraps discarded by fisherman.

Ecology and Conservation

Pelicans have attracted human attention for centuries. Their images are widely used as caricatures for commercial enterprises such as hotels, restaurants, toys, and books.

They are primarily birds of warm climates and breed mainly in isolated areas away from predation and human disturbance. Pelicans require large quantities of food daily. Food supply is often a limiting factor in pelican distribution and range. Fortunately, pelicans feed mainly on "trash" fish that have little to no commercial or sporting value. Nevertheless, pelicans are often victims of fishing hooks and lines, oil spills, pesticides, guns, arrows, cars, boats, and power lines.


McCauley, J. R. Field Guide to the Birds of North America. National Geographic Society Pub. 1983.

Perrins, C. M. and A.L.A. Middleton. The Encyclopedia of Birds. Facts of File Pub., New York. 1985.

Todd, F. S. 10,001 Titillating Tidbits of Avian Trivia. Ibis Pub. Co., California. 1994.

USFWS Endangered Species: ecos.fws.gov/species_profile/SpeciesProfile?spcode=B02L