Conservation Education and Science
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Brown Pelican
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Pelecanus occidentalis
ORDER: Pelencaniformes
FAMILY: Pelecanidae
RANGE: North, Central and South America
HABITAT: Seacoasts, estuaries and marine marshland
DIET: Fish

The brown pelican, smallest of the pelicans, is about three feet long, with a six-foot wingspan, and weighs about seven pounds. The plumage is mostly gray or brown, with a white head, yellowish forehead and, in the breeding bird, a chestnut neck. The bill is long and gray, with a large, black pouch suspended from the bill and throat. The legs, feet and bare facial skin are black. The adult bird is usually silent, but may emit croaking and hissing sounds, the nestling squeals.

The brown pelican’s most distinctive feature is its huge bill, which is flat on top with a nail at the end to secure the fish. The bottom pouch can expand to hold two gallons of water at a time. Unlike other pelicans, the brown dives from great heights to catch fish. The sound of the bird hitting the water can be heard up to half a mile away, but air pockets beneath the skin cushion the impact and protect the bird from injury. Pelicans live long lives; the life span of the brown is 15-to-25 years.

The brown pelican nests in colonies in trees, or on the ground. Monogamous through the breeding season, both sexes construct a nest lined with plants, guano and twigs. The female lays three dull white eggs, with two or three days between. Incubation, by both parents, begins with the laying of the first egg, thus giving the advantage of age and size at feeding time to the first-hatched chick. If the parents cannot supply enough food for all, the smaller ones starve. About three weeks after hatching, the chicks move to a group, or pod, of other chicks to live for eight-to-ten weeks, continuing to be fed regurgitated matter by their own parents.

The Dallas Zoo’s brown pelicans came from Texas rehabilitators and are wild birds with wing injuries that make them non-releasable.