Gulf Restoration

Brown Pelican

Brown Pelican 

Photo: Gary Stolz, usfws

Brown Pelican

Removed from the endangered species list in 2009 after decades of recovery from DDT and hunting, Brown Pelicans became a symbol of the BP oil disaster in 2010 when many were coated in thick, sticky oil. Although many were rehabilitated and released, no one knows what long-term effects this toxic exposure will have on their bodies. And because they are top marine predators, pelicans are sensitive to disruptions in the food web. They are also at risk due to habitat loss, particularly in Louisiana, where their breeding islands are eroding rapidly. Some are likely to disappear completely within a few years.

Whether perched on a fishing pier or gliding above the sea, the conspicuous and popular Brown Pelican, with its large body, long bill, and enormous throat pouch, is unmistakable. Long wings gracefully carry foraging birds just above the water's surface; flocks often fly in synchronized single-file lines, slowly rising and falling in waves. The oldest known Brown Pelican lived 43 years.

Sexes look similar, though males are slightly larger, with short, dark legs, long, broad wings, a large, heavy all-brown body, white neck, pale yellow face, and a huge bill, paler at the base, and tipped with yellow. Webbing between all four toes makes the Brown Pelican an awkward walker, but a strong swimmer.

Brown Pelicans are highly social year-round and breed in colonies of up to several thousand pairs. Pairs build nests on the ground, on cliffs, or in low trees like mangroves. Typically, males gather nesting materials and females build nests, which range from simple scrapes to elaborate stick nests in trees. Two to four white eggs are incubated under the parents' foot webs for nearly a month. Both parents feed their young predigested fish.