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Brown Pelecan
Pelecanus occidentalis



Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Subphylum: Vertebrata
Class: Aves
Order: Pelecaniformes
Family: Pelecanidae

Physical Characteristics

About 50 inches (125 cm) long with a wingspan of 6.5 feet (2 m). The bill is long and flat, the neck long, and the huge throat pouch is flat when deflated. It is a dark water bird, with the adult having a great deal of white about the head and neck. The immature bird has a dark head and white underparts (Peterson, 1990). The bill is hooked at the tip and there are no external nostril openings (Leahy, 1982).


Pelecanus occidentalis is found near coasts and inland waters (Perrins and Middleton, 1985). It is often seen perched on posts and buoys (Peterson, 1990).

Geographic Range

This species is found primarily in North America on islands along the Pacific coast from central California through Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, Galapagos Islands, and along the South American coast from Ecuador to Chile, and along the Atlantic, Gulf, and Caribbean coasts from North Carolina south to Florida and west to southern Texas, in the West Indies and the Greater Antilles east to the Virgin Islands and St. Martin, off the Yucatan Peninsula and Belize, and off the north coast of Venezuela (American Ornithologists' Union, 1983).


The Brown Pelican eats fish. As the bird begins its downward plunge into the water, after sighting its prey, it falls into the water with a splash. The bird strikes the water upside-down at an angle of 70-80 degrees. At this time the neck is straightened and the bill enters the water with the pouch upside-down so that the force of the dive opens the pouch to its fullest. As the Pelican assumes a sitting position on the water the bill is closed, pointed downwards allowing the water to drain from the pouch, the bill is then raised and the bird swallows (Forbush and May, 1955). The pouch is capable of holding over 3 gallons of water (Leahy, 1982).

Reproductive Characteristics

The nest is usually constructed of sticks and grasses, built in either the bushes or on the ground. Generally an island is chosen by this communal nester, often in a mangrove growth (Forbush and May, 1955). There are one to four chalky-white eggs. The incubation period is 1 month (Perrins and Middleton, 1985). Both parents feed the young, increasing the chances of two to three young surviving (Perrins and Middleton, 1985). Nestlings are very noisy (Leahy, 1982).


The Brown Pelican is also known as the Common Pelican, American Brown Pelican, and Blue Pelican (Forbush and May, 1955). Nestlings squeal, while adults are silent with a rare low croak (Peterson, 1990).

Literature Cited

American Ornithologists' Union. 1983. Check-list of North American birds, 6th ed. Allen Press, Lawrence, 877 pp.

Forbush, E. H., and J. B. May. 1955. A natural history of American birds of eastern and central North America. Bramhall House, New York, 552 pp.

Leahy, C. 1982. The birdwatcher's companion: an encyclopedic handbook of North American birdlife. Hill and Wang, New York, 917 pp.

Perrins, C. M., and A. L. A. Middleton, eds. 1985. The encyclopedia of birds. Equinox, Ltd., Oxford, 447 pp.

Peterson, R. T. 1990. A field guide to western birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 432 pp.

Mary Kirschenbaum, July 1996.


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