Pelican, Eastern Brown

Pelecanus occidentalis 

Brown pelicans are dark and bulky. The sexes are similar in plumage; they reach 106-137 cm (42-54 in) in length, weigh from 2.75 to 5.5 kg (6-12 lb) and have wingspans from 1.83 to 2.5 m (6 to 8.2 ft).  The head is white with a pale yellow wash on the crown; the long bill is grayish; back, rump, and tail are streaked with gray and dark brown; the breast and belly are a blackish-brown; eyes pale yellow; and legs and feet are black. Immatures have brownish-gray necks and white underparts. All pelicans have bills that are as long as or longer than their heads. A large naked skin pouch is suspended from the lower half of the hooked bill.








Coasts from Washington and Virginia south to northern Chile and the mouth of the Amazon River, as well as the island of Saut d’Eau in Trinidad and Tobago.


Life Expectancy

Sexual Maturity

Males and females reach sexual maturity at approximately 730 days (2 years).


In the wild, menhaden (locally known as pogy) account for 90-95% of their food. They also prey on pigfish, pinfish, herring, sheepshead, silversides, mullet, grass and top minnows, and they sometimes eat crustaceans, usually prawns. In the Zoo, they are fed whiting supplemented with vitamins and minerals.


IUCN - Least Concern; USFWS – Endangered; US Migratory Bird Treaty Act - Protected


Pelicans are very gregarious birds; they live in flocks of both sexes throughout the year. They are exceptionally buoyant due to the internal air sacks beneath their skin and in their bones, and as graceful in the air as they are clumsy on land. In level flight, pelicans fly in groups, with their heads held back on their shoulders, the bills resting on their folded necks. They may fly in a “V”, but usually in regular lines or single file. Brown pelicans dive for fish. They sight prey from above and plunge into water head-first, trapping fish in extended pouch. Water is drained out the sides of the bill, and then the fish are swallowed. Male pelicans pick out the nesting sites and perform an “advertising” display which attracts the females. Once a pair forms a bond, overt communication between them is minimal. Pelican nesting peaks during March and April; nests are in colonies either in trees, bushes, or on the ground. Those placed in trees are made of reeds, grasses, straw, and sticks; if on the ground, nests consist of a shallow scrape lined with feathers and a rim of soil built 4-10’’ above the ground. Brown Pelicans lay 2-3 chalky white eggs. Incubation is about 28-30 days; young walk out of the nests on the ground about 35 days after hatching but do not leave treetop nests until about 63 -88 days for their first flight. Unlike most birds, which warm their eggs with the skin of their breasts, pelicans incubate their eggs with their feet. They hold the eggs under the webs that stretch from the front toes to the hind toe, essentially standing on the eggs to warm them. Migratory habits of brown pelicans - Summer Range: Brown pelicans breed in scattered locations along coasts from Maryland southward to Florida and westward to southern Texas and Mexico and down to Honduras. On Pacific Coast, they breed from southern California to South America. They also breed in the Caribbean to northern South America. After the breeding season, they wander widely north to New England and British Columbia. Winter Range: Winters along both coasts from central California and Virginia southward to South America.


Pelicaniformes are the only birds that share in common a totipalmate foot, that is, one in which all four toes, including the hind one, are united by a web of skin.

Special Interests

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. 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. The exposed neck looks like a large lump sticking up out of the pouch.


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 its seal because of the Louisiana connection. Common rhyme: An amazing bird is the Pelican, Its beak can hold more than its belly can.


Shooting for feathers and to “protect” commercial fishing interests caused declines in pelican populations in the first half of the 20th century. Though an adult pelican requires as much as 4 lbs of fish a day, they have been shown to not compete with commercial or sport fisherman, as they don’t eat the same “quality” of fish as humans do. Pesticide poisoning, especially by DDT, caused severe declines across the range in the late 1950’s and the extirpation from Louisiana (“the pelican state”). 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 overly-thin and incapable of supporting the embryo to maturity or the parents cracked the eggs during incubation. It was listed as Endangered throughout the range in 1970. The ban on DDT led to a population recovery, and it was removed from the Endangered Species list in Atlantic Coast states in 1985. Breeding numbers in most states are stable or increasing, and the total population in the United States now exceeds historical levels.

Jacksonville Zoo History

Brown Pelicans have been part of the Zoo’s collection off and on since at least 1971. This species has successfully bred here.


Emerald Forest Aviary