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Brown Pelican


Brown Pelican

Brown Pelican - Breeding Plumage

Mike Baird

Louisiana’s state bird, the brown pelican is also the smallest of the world’s seven pelican species. With its unique behavior and classic pelican proportions, however, it is instantly recognizable and a popular bird along North and Central American coastlines.

Common Name:

Brown Pelican

Scientific Name:

Pelecanus occidentalis


  • Bill: Long, gray, pendulous throat pouch
  • Size: 50 inches long with 80-inch wingspan, thick body
  • Colors: Brown, black, gray, white, yellow, red
  • Markings: Genders are similar with a white neck and head and pale yellow forehead. Eyes are pale and the throat pouch is dark, though western birds have a red patch on the pouch in breeding season. Hindneck varies from white to brown depending on location. Wings and back are a silver gray or brown, chest and abdomen are darker. Legs and feet are dark. Non-breeding plumage is duller, and juvenile birds are allover brown with dark eyes and paler underparts.



Habitat and Migration:

Brown pelicans are coastal birds that can be found year-round along the east coast of North America from Virginia through Central America to the coasts of Colombia and Venezuela as well as throughout the Caribbean. In the west, populations extend from central California south to Ecuador and northern Peru. In both eastern and western ranges, birds at the northern reaches may migrate seasonally.


Adult brown pelicans are generally silent, though a low grunting can occasionally be heard. Young birds have a harsh “crak-crak-crak-crak-crak” call as well as a hiss they will use to attract their parents’ attention, and these calls also serve to help the parents recognize their own chicks.


Brown pelicans are regularly found in loose flocks and may even hunt in flocks with twisting plunge dives into deep water. This type of pelican is the only one to use hunting plunge dives, but in shallow waters they will also swim and scoop prey into their pouches at the surface. They are also often seen flying in loose formations low over the water, floating near shore or perched on docks and posts while sunning.


These are monogamous birds and both parents share the responsibility of incubating one annual brood of 2-4 eggs for 28-30 days. Chicks may begin to leave a ground nest after 35 days, but if the nest is elevated they will not leave until their first flight at 60-80 days, during which time both parents care for the fledglings.

Attracting Brown Pelicans:

These are not backyard birds and are rare to find away from coasts. Harbor populations can become accustomed to humans, however, and may even beg for handouts from fishing boats. In some locations, visitors are able to purchase or catch fish to feed brown pelicans and other marine life.

Similar Birds:

  • American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos)
  • Brandt’s Cormorant (Phalacrocorax penicillatus)

Photo – Brown Pelican – Breeding Plumage © Mike Baird, flickr.bairdphotos.com
Photo – Brown Pelican in Flight © Jerry Kirkhart
Photo – Brown Pelican – Juvenile © Andrea Westmoreland

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