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.