Brown Pelican

In Birds, Harbor and Bay, Open Beaches, Slough Life, Tidal Channels by Administrator

caspain tern

© Mike Kelley

Quick Facts

Scientific NamePelcanus occidentalis
Family: Pelecanidae

Found at Elkhorn Slough

Monterey Bay, Beaches, Harbor, mudflats and open waterways.

Did you know…

Pelicans can live to be over 30 years old.

With a wing span of nearly 79 inches, the Brown Pelican is hard to miss. it can be seen along the beaches and open water, gliding effortlessly close to the waves, and diving from great heights for food. Being the only dark pelican, they are easy to identify. They are found globally along the West coast of the Americas and found locally throughout the Bay along all of its beaches and coastal waters, and hanging out at harbors and wharfs and boardwalks hoping for a handout.

From heights of up to 70 feet, the pelican uses keen eyesight to locate fish under the water. Pelicans dive straight down using the large pouch on their bill as a dip net to catch one or more fish at a time. Occasionally, large schools of fish come into Elkhorn Slough and visitors have observed an impressive spectacle of over 200 pelicans engaged in a diving and feeding frenzy from Kirby Park or Hummingbird Island. They of course feed on fish, their local favorites being anchovies, sardines, and topsmelt.

Brown Pelicans are long-lived (over 30 years), social, and gregarious. Pelican parents work together to build nests, incubate eggs, and raise young.

In the late 19th and early 20th century Brown Pelicans were hunted for their feathers to adorn women’s hats. After World War I, they were slaughtered by the thousands to avoid fishing competition, and their nests were raided for eggs. In the late 1940’s, widespread use of DDT contaminated fish the pelicans ate which resulted in egg-shell thinning and chick deformities. By the 1960’s Brown Pelican populations were in serious decline.

In 1970, the Brown Pelican was listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as endangered. Studies proved that pelicans were not harming commercial fisheries and in 1972, DDT was banned for use in the United States. As a result of these actions, along with enforcement of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, Brown Pelican populations have recovered enough that on December 17, 2009 they were de-listed as an endangered species. As a criteria for de-listing, Brown Pelican populations will be monitored for 5 years. The Brown Pelican currently has the status of “Least Concern” on the IUCN Red List.

A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His bill will hold more than his belican,
He can take in his beak
Enough food for a week
But I’m damned if I see how the helican!
– By Dixon Lanier Merritt

August 2012 update: Why are so many pelicans turning up on beaches starving or dead this summer?According to a July press release from International Bird Rescue, it is normal to see pelicans struggle to survive this time of year. Fedging in May, many young pelicans have trouble learning to feed themselves. However, with the rebound success in the pelican population (along with a bumper breeding year) we are seeing many more starving birds than usual. So while more pelicans are successfully breeding, we are also seeing more struggling pelicans, and rescue centers are getting overwhelmed.


brown pelican
diving pelican from mural in VC