Bird Species Spotlight: Brown Pelican

by Jake Jacoby | May 2, 2017

Brown pelicans nesting © Jake JacobySquadrons of brown pelicans can routinely be seen flying together in v-shaped formation above the surf line along both the southern and western coasts of the United States. While there are seven species of pelicans, the brown pelican is the smallest and the only one that plunges from the air into the water to catch its food. They feed by plunge-diving from high up, using the force of impact to stun small fish before scooping them up.
While the brown pelican is draining the water from its bill after a dive, gulls often try to steal the fish right out of its pouch. They sometimes even perch on the pelican’s head or back and reach in. The pelican itself, however, is not above stealing fish from other seabirds. It also follows fishing boats and hangs around piers for handouts.

Brown pelican in flight © Jake Jacoby

Brown pelican in flight

“A funny old bird is the pelican,
His beak can hold more than his belly-can.
He can hold in his beak,
Enough fish for a week,
But I’m darned if I know how the hell-he-can,”

Brown pelican landing © Jake Jacoby

Brown pelican landing

Brown pelicans mostly eat small fish that form schools near the surface of the water. In Florida, mullet is a favorite fish. A pelican will spot a fish from the air and will then dive head-first from as high as 65-feet over the ocean, tucking and twisting to the left to protect its trachea and esophagus from the impact. As the pelican plunges into the water, its throat pouch expands to trap the fish, filling with up to 2.6 gallons of water. Pelicans usually feed within 12 miles of the shoreline but will occasionally venture further offshore. Sometimes they will feed by sitting on the surface and seizing prey with their bills when a dense school of fish is close to the surface and the water is too shallow to plunge-dive.

The brown pelican frequently lowers its head onto its shoulders with the bill open, pulls its head back, and stretches the pouch over its throat and neck. Its exposed neck looks like a large lump sticking up out of the pouch.

Brown pelican lift-off © Jake Jacoby

Brown pelican lift-off

Pelicans live and nest in what are called colonies or rookeries. On the Atlantic and Gulf coasts they breed mostly on barrier islands, natural islands in estuaries, and islands made of refuse from dredging. In Florida they primarily use mangrove islands where the male picks out a nesting site on the ground or in a tree. One of these locations is used to lure a female and if she likes the site of the nest she may give the male a chance. The female ultimately does the mate selecting and she must make the final selection on the nest site as well. It is important that the male is not too aggressive or he will chase away the female, but he needs to be aggressive enough to avoid other males from moving in on his site. He performs a display of head movements and a female will approach usually within 2–4 days due to either his display, site/nest construction, plumage, or a combination of these. Once she accepts her partner they will then attempt to mate right away.

Brown pelicans nesting © Jake Jacoby

Brown pelicans nesting

Unlike most birds which warm their eggs with the skin of their breasts, pelicans incubate their eggs with the skin of their feet, basically standing on the eggs to keep them warm. They hold the eggs under the webs that stretch from the front toes to hind toe. This peculiar incubation method made them vulnerable to the effects of the pesticide DDT. The DDT made the eggshells thin, and the weight of the incubating parents frequently cracked their eggs. After nearly disappearing from North America in the 1960s and 70s, they have now made a full comeback thanks to pesticide regulations currently in effect.

Chicks are hatched in broods of 2–3 eggs after incubation of about a month and are born naked and helpless at birth. Both parents care for the young and they will stay in their nests for about 3 months. Young brown pelicans can normally fly and fend for themselves after 3 months, but take 3–5 years of age to reach sexual maturity.

The brown pelican is the state bird of Louisiana. The oldest brown pelican on record lived to be 43 years of age!

About the Author

To see more of Jake's work as well as his favorite photographs check out his Flickr page.

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