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Brown Pelican Sitting On A Pier In The Bahamas.

Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis)

The brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) is a non-migratory bird that makes its home around shallow waters in marine coastal environments. Within the Americas, they can be found along the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific coasts and sometimes up rivers and in estuaries when seeking protection from a passing storm.

Scroll down for some exciting facts about the brown pelican.

 #1: What is the actual color of the brown pelican? 

The brown pelican is a bird that has a brownish-gray plumage with a yellow and white head. During the breeding season their elongated neck can change color from white to brown! However, before reaching maturity, juveniles are fully brown.

Brown pelican perching on wooden post.

 #2: Brown pelicans are natural energy savers. 

With a wingspan up to 7 feet, brown pelicans are extremely efficient flyers that take energy saving to a whole new level. The brown pelican can glide just inches above the water’s surface due to the aerodynamic phenomenon known as the ground effect. The air between the bird’s wings and water surface is funneled, compressing the air and creating lift to support the pelican’s flight. The brown pelican occasionally climbs to higher altitudes to gain some speed and then will return to gliding to save energy. This technique is so effective that during World War II long range planes mimicked this action when flying over the ocean to save fuel!

Brown pelican flying over dock in The Bahamas.

 #3: How well adapted are brown pelicans for hunting? 

Brown pelicans dive headfirst into the water to hunt for fish and have found that entering the water at a steep angle, between 60-90 degrees, is the most successful. Brown pelicans are adapted to protect themselves as they dive, which can be from as high as 60 feet! Before they enter the water, they rotate to the left to protect their trachea and esophagus, which are located on the right side of their neck. They also have air sacs beneath their skin that inflate just before they hit the water to act like a cushion.

Brown pelican diving into the ocean. PC: Mexitographer
Photo Credit: Mexitographer

 #4: What does the brown pelican feed on? 

The brown pelican doesn’t actually store their food in its bill! Instead they can use it like a net to scoop fish out of the water before swallowing them whole. These birds feed mainly on fish and definitely have a favorite – menhaden makes up 90% of their diet.1 However, during nesting season, anchovies are an important fish for them to feed to their chicks.

Brown pelican eating a fish. PC: jtillard1.
Photo Credit: jtillard1

 #5: How does the brown pelican maintain a healthy body temperature? 

To ensure that they don’t overheat, the brown pelican has its own cooling system. When they are too hot and need to reduce their body temperature, they open their bills and rapidly flap their gular pouch, a featherless area of skin that attaches their bill to their lower jaw. This motion is called a gular flutter and allows heat to evaporate, lowering their body temperature.

Brown pelican showing its gular pouch. PC: BrianLasenby
Photo Credit: Brian Lasenby

 #6: Raising a juvenile brown pelican 

Once a brown pelican has laid on average 2-3 eggs, both the mother and father take turns incubating them. Brown pelicans have a slightly unusual way of doing this – they use their webbed feet! Eggs hatch after a month, and the juveniles will be fed by their parents until they are ready to fledge the nest 2-3 months later.

Juvenile brown pelican on a nest. PC: Rejean Bedard.
Photo Credit: Rejean Bedard

 #7: The brown pelican is a well respected bird. 

Many countries respect the brown pelican for their nurturing nature and have, therefore, named it their national bird. Some of these countries include:

📌 Turks and Caicos Islands
📌 Barbados
📌 Saint Martin
📌 Saint Kitts and Nevis

The State of Louisiana has even named it its official state bird!

Barbados coat of arms. PC: Cdjp1.
Photo Credit: Cdjp1

 #8: Brown pelicans definitely like leftovers. 

You’ve probably seen brown pelicans around docks and fishing ports. They often loiter waiting for scraps discarded by fishermen. This behavior provides the brown pelican with the perfect excuse to live alongside humans.

Brown pelican perching on a wooden pilar. PC: ManaVonLamac.
Photo Credit: ManaVonLamac

In the 1960s and 1970s brown pelicans almost disappeared due to the pesticide DDT, and they were listed as an endangered species. Since DDT was banned in 1972, populations have recovered, and they are currently a species of least concern according to the IUCN. Let’s keep it that way.


Additional Brown Pelican Resources:
Idaho Museum of Natural History Brown Pelican 3D model
2. National Wildlife  Federation wildlife guide for the brown pelican

1 National Geographic. (n.d.). Pelicans. Retrieved 13 October 2022, from

Laura Jessop

Laura Jessop

I am an ocean enthusiast that has worked previously and continue to help at Local Ocean Conservation which is a non-profit organisation based in Kenya. I helped with the efforts of protecting sea turtles that have been caught as by-catch in the Indian Ocean. I help them digitalise and manage over 20 years worth of data that they have collected. Currently I am a remote intern here at ANGARI and very excited to help with the amazing work they conduct.

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