The Brown Pelican

January 9, 2014 • 5:49 pm

by Greg Mayer

My Florida correspondent sends this picture of a Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) taken on January 9, 2014, along the Caloosahatchee River in Ft. Myers, Florida.

Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis), Ft. Myers, Florida, 9 January 2014.
Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis), Ft. Myers, Florida, 9 January 2014.

The pelican above is an adult (note white neck with yellowish wash on head; both are brownish in juveniles) in non-breeding condition (when breeding, most of a pelican’s neck becomes chestnut red).

Brown Pelicans are a conservation success story. Persecuted for their feathers by the hat trade in the 19th and early 20th centuries, DDT in the mid 20th century nearly finished them off, as the thin egg shells caused by the pesticide accumulating in their primarily fish diet led to their near total disappearance from the Gulf Coast and southern California. They were listed as endangered in 1970. DDT was banned in 1972, other recovery actions were taken (including re-introductions), and by the mid 1980s the species was recovering, and some segments of the range were delisted in 1985; the remaining range was delisted in 2009. It is now considered a species of “least concern” by the IUCN.

I’m not sure if the Caribbean populations were ever considered endangered. They were fairly common in both the U.S. and British Virgin Islands during my field work there in the 80s and early 90s.

I mentioned that pelicans’ primary food is fish (which is how the pelicans ingested DDT), but thanks to Youtube, it is now widely known that pelicans also occasionally eat birds (have a look here). I’ve never seen, however, a Brown Pelican feeding this way; they always seem to be Great White Pelicans (Pelecanus onocrotalus). Perhaps this is because Brown Pelicans typically feed by plunge-diving, which would not work so well if your prey-pigeon is standing on land, while Great Whites do more rooting about and grabbing things.

13 thoughts on “The Brown Pelican

  1. Sometimes these guys fly beside my car as I cross one of Tampa’s miles-long bridges. Its so beautiful to see them suspended in air.

      1. Yep. The lake has a lot of fish, as evidenced by all the other piscivorous species that live around/on it, so the pelicans seem to concentrate on them. It’s OK, though: there’s often a Peregrine in the area, and it takes a toll on the pigeons.

  2. I imagine they’re somewhat like Great Blue Herons: they’ll eat anything that moves and is small enough to fit in their mouths! I’ve seen the videos of them snatching pigeons, etc. The Pelican, though, has the “gull-like” trait of readily accepting non-living food- I remember sitting on a dock near the Everglades, with a mob of these Browns waiting for the fishermen to return and clean their catches. I watched them fight over 30-inch-long filleted fish carcasses, which they swallowed without even attempting to turn them head-first! Don’t know how they did it.

  3. Our state bird! They seem to have rebounded well since the BP oil spill. My wife and I go hiking in the Jean Lafitte National Preserve several times a year, and I recall that last year, many more nests had been observed.

    1. The massive annual winter influx of white pelicans to the lakes near Louisiana State University is one of the most amazingly impressive sights I’ve ever experienced.

  4. Perhaps this is because Brown Pelicans typically feed by plunge-diving, which would not work so well if your prey-pigeon is standing on land,

    I’m sure that it happens from time to time but likely gets selected against since they would be less attractive to the opposite sex owing to the accordion bill.

  5. 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!

  6. A fact ‘about’ the brown pelican: the pelican character in that otherwise flawless documentary Finding Nemo (voiced by Geoffrey Rush) is portrayed as this species, but it doesn’t actually occur anywhere near Australia.
    Australia maintains a White Pelican policy.

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