At a Glance
An unmistakable bird of coastal waters. Groups of Brown Pelicans fly low over the waves in single file, flapping and gliding in unison. Their feeding behavior is spectacular, as they plunge headlong into the water in pursuit of fish. The current abundance of this species in the United States represents a success story for conservationists, who succeeded in halting the use of DDT and other persistent pesticides here; as recently as the early 1970s, the Brown Pelican was seriously endangered.
All bird guide text and rangemaps adapted from Lives of North American Birds by Kenn Kaufman© 1996, used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Duck-like Birds, Pelicans
Coasts and Shorelines, Open Ocean, Saltwater Wetlands
California, Florida, Mid Atlantic, Northwest, Southeast, Southwest, Texas, Western Canada
Flap/Glide, Formation, Running, Soaring
Range & Identification
Migration & Range Maps
After breeding season, flocks move north along both Atlantic and Pacific coasts. These birds return southward to warmer waters by winter. Small numbers of immatures regularly wander inland in summer, especially in southwest.
45-54" (1.1-1.4 m). W. 7'6 (2.3 m). Very large, with distinctive shape. Adult gray-brown with pale head (back of neck turns chestnut in breeding season). Juvenile all brown at first, changing gradually to adult plumage.
About the size of a Heron
Brown, Gray, White, Yellow
Broad, Fingered, Long, Tapered
Songs and Calls
Usually silent, but utters low grunts on nesting grounds.
Croak/Quack, Odd, Scream
Salt bays, beaches, ocean. Mostly over shallow waters along immediate coast, especially on sheltered bays; sometimes seen well out to sea. Nests on islands, which may be either bare and rocky or covered with mangroves or other trees. Strays may appear on fresh water lakes inland.
Sign up for Audubon's newsletter to learn more about birds like the Brown Pelican
3, sometimes 2-4. White, becoming nest-stained. Incubation is by both sexes, roughly 28-30 days. Young: Both parents feed young. Young may leave ground nests after about 5 weeks and gather in groups, where returning parents apparently can recognize own offspring. Young may remain in tree nests longer (perhaps up to 9 weeks) before clambering about in branches. Age at first flight varies, reportedly 9-12 weeks or more. Adults continue to feed young for some time after they leave colony. 1 brood per year.
Both parents feed young. Young may leave ground nests after about 5 weeks and gather in groups, where returning parents apparently can recognize own offspring. Young may remain in tree nests longer (perhaps up to 9 weeks) before clambering about in branches. Age at first flight varies, reportedly 9-12 weeks or more. Adults continue to feed young for some time after they leave colony. 1 brood per year.
Forages by diving from the air, from as high as 60' above water, plunging into water headfirst and coming to surface with fish in bill. Tilts bill down to drain water out of pouch, then tosses head back to swallow. Will scavenge at times and will become tame, approaching fishermen for handouts.
Almost entirely fish. Types of fish known to be important in some areas include menhaden, smelt, anchovies. Also some crustaceans.
Nests in colonies. Nest: Site is on ground or cliff of island, or on low trees such as mangroves. Nest (built by female, with material gathered by male) may be simple scrape in soil, heap of debris with depression at top, or large stick nest in tree.
Audubon’s scientists have used 140 million bird observations and sophisticated climate models to project how climate change will affect the range of the Brown Pelican. Learn even more in our Audubon’s Survival By Degrees project.
Climate Threats Facing the Brown Pelican
Choose a temperature scenario below to see which threats will affect this species as warming increases. The same climate change-driven threats that put birds at risk will affect other wildlife and people, too.