The Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis)

  • Scientific classification.
  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Aves
  • Order: Pelecaniformes
  • Family: Pelecanidae
  • Genus: Pelecanus
  • Species: P. occidentalis
  • Binomial name: Pelecanus occidentalis Linnaeus, 1766

The Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) is the smallest of the eight species of pelican, although it is a large bird in nearly every other regard. It is 106–137 cm (42–54 in) in length, weighs from 2.75 to 5.5 kg (6.1 to 12 lb) and has a wingspan from 1.83 to 2.5 m (6.0 to 8.2 ft).

Range and habits

The Brown Pelican occurs on coasts in the Americas from Washington and Virginia south to northern Peru and the mouth of the Amazon River, as well as the island of Saut d'Eau in Trinidad and Tobago. Some immature birds may stray to inland freshwater lakes. After nesting, North American birds move in flocks further north along the coasts, returning to warmer waters for winter. Their young are hatched in broods of about 3, and eat around 150 lbs. of fish in the 8–10 month period they are cared for.

This bird is distinguished from the American White Pelican by its brown body and its habit of diving for fish from the air, as opposed to co-operative fishing from the surface. It eats mainly fish and amphibians as well as crustaceans. Groups of Brown Pelicans often travel in single file, flying low over the water's surface.

The nest location varies from a simple scrape on the ground on an island to a bulky stick nest in a low tree. These birds nest in colonies, usually on islands.

Threats and conservation

Pesticides like DDT and dieldrin threatened the Brown Pelican's future in the southeast United States and California in the early 1970s. Pesticides also threatened the pelican population in Florida in this period. A research group from the University of Tampa headed by Dr. Ralph Schreiber conducted research in the Tampa Bay/St Petersburg area and found that DDT caused the pelican eggshells to be too thin and incapable of supporting the embryo to maturity. As a result of this research, DDT usage was eliminated in Florida, followed by the rest of the US. Along with the American White Pelican, the Brown Pelican is protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List has listed the Brown Pelican as Least Concern since 1988. [1] The US government imposed a ban on the use of DDT in 1972. Since then, the population of Brown Pelican has increased. Current estimates place the population at 650,000 individuals. [2] Millions of barrels of crude oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill caused by the explosion in April 2010 of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico may drift ashore and threaten the subspecies of the Brown Pelican that lives in Louisiana. [3]


There are five subspecies:

  • Pelecanus occidentalis californicus (California Brown Pelican)
  • Pelecanus occidentalis carolinensis (Eastern Brown Pelican) Gmelin, 1789
  • Pelecanus occidentalis occidentalis (Caribbean Brown Pelican) Linnaeus, 1766
  • Pelecanus occidentalis murphy (Pacific Brown Pelican) Wetmore, 1945
  • Pelecanus occidentalis urinator (Galapagos Brown Pelican) Wetmore, 1945

The Peruvian Pelican, Pelecanus thagus, used to be considered a subspecies of the Brown Pelican (P. o. thagus). Due to its well-defined allopatry and because it is much larger and heavier than its relatives, it has been reclassified as a separate species.

The Brown Pelican is the national bird of the Turks and Caicos Islands, and state bird of Louisiana. It is also one of the mascots of Tulane University and is on both Tulane's and Louisiana State University's seal. It is also on the Crest of the University of the West Indies.

Web References:


  1. ^ a b BirdLife International (2009). "Pelecanus occidentalis". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2009.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature.
  2. ^ Dina Cappiello (November 12, 2009). "Brown pelicans off endangered species list". San Francisco Chronicle.
  3. ^ Tony Allen-Mills (June 6, 2010). "Pelicans herald Obama's Katrina moment". The Times.

This webpage was updated 1st May 2020