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If you live in the Americas, there’s a high probability that you’ve seen the brown pelican at some point. Maybe you noted its giant beak and large expandable neck and thought — this looks like it came straight out of the Jurassic era!

If so, you’d be partially correct. Pelicans were not around quite as far back as dinosaurs. However, it wasn’t much later either (relatively speaking!). Based on fossil records, scientists deduce the pelican came into existence about 30 million years ago — 35 million years after dinosaur extinction.

They look so ancient in form because… well…. their form is ancient; as ancient as their existence. Nature created this bird with all of the features and tools it needed to essentially bypass evolution for 30 million years! In fact, the gargantuan beak this bird is famous for is morphologically identical to the oldest fossilized beak in scientists’ possession.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

A Brown Pelican sitting in the water, with its beak submerged slightly

Size and Features

Pelicans are visibly large birds; however, the brown pelican is the smallest of the species. They’re typically between 3 ft 3” to 5 ft in height weighing up to 10 lbs. Wingspans are enormous, reaching up to 7.5 ft!

Both Pacific and Atlantic brown pelicans have robust bodies and large beaks and expansive neck pouches. Juveniles are entirely brown, from head to tailfeather. Their plumage develops more colorfully as they mature. If you look close, there are some subtle differences between brown pelicans from coast to coast.

Those from the Pacific side display a bright red neck pouch during breeding seasons. In contrast, the Atlantic brown pelicans’ pouches are brown. Atlantic brown pelicans have bright yellow heads while Pacific sport a more subtle, pale yellow head. Atlantics are also a tad smaller than Pacifics.

A Brown Pelican sitting in the water, with its wings extended preparing to takeoff for flight

Habitat

You’ve probably seen brown pelicans at the beach or other coastal areas. They’re often spotted hanging around fishing docks — perhaps, bugging the local fisherman for a snack. Due to their dependency on fish, this bird is rarely seen inland.

However, its habitat is quite expansive. It stretches along the coasts from British Columbia and Maryland down to the southern tip of South America.

Nesting typically takes place on cliffsides or isolated islands far out of predators’ reach. In Florida, you’ll see the birds nesting in mangroves. Brown pelicans move short distances, but only for birthing and breeding purposes, categorizing them as dispersive birds. Since they’re nonmigratory, they’re also considered resident birds.

A row of three Brown Pelicans, perched atop a pier's railing

Diet

Brown pelicans are piscivores, meaning they primarily eat fish. Menhaden consists of about 90% of the birds' diet. Smelt, anchovies, shrimp, and small crustaceans make up the other portion. 

To hunt prey, brown pelicans crash-dive from about 50 ft. in the air, directly into the water. Maybe you've witnessed this behavior — it makes quite the splash. You'd think they're diving deep with all that raucous. But really, the bird remains near the surface where it can scoop the pile of fish it stunned. The brown pelican's buoyancy is possible thanks to a system of subcutaneous air-sacs built into its skin. 

Next, you'll see where the beak and neck pouch really shine — during consumption. To feed, the brown pelican, with a beakful, tilts its head forward to drain a bit of the water. Then, it aggressively throws its neck back to gulp down its prey. Nom nom nom.

Two Brown Pelicans perched atop a pier's railing facing towards the ocean

Breeding, Behavior, and Lifespan

As they’re social birds, you’ll often see brown pelicans flying in groups in V formation. They also hunt in groups — surfing along the breaking waves, sharply focused on fish nearing the surface.

If a male spots a female he’s interested in, you’ll see him hanging around a nesting site he’s carefully selected. He’ll be enticing the female to build her nest there. If the female agrees, she’ll pull together a pile of soil, sticks, and other debris to form a nest.

Brown pelicans nest in large communities called pods. These birds are mostly silent but sometimes grunt quietly within their pods. They lay white eggs in batches of about 2-4. Both parents will take turns incubating the eggs for bout a month. Rather than incubating with their breast (like most birds), they use their giant webbed feet to keep the eggs cozy.

Four Brown Pelicans flying low & in formation over an ocean shoreline

When the chicks are born, both parents feed them for up to a year, through regurgitation. Yum. After about 5 months, the chicks will often leave their nest and join other juveniles in small pods. Scientists have observed parent pelicans seeking out and recognizing their runaway chick in these scenarios. Chicks begin to fly at around 9 months but aren’t fully mature for about 3 years. Parents will stick together during breeding and raising the young but will recouple for their next breedings.

The typical lifespan of a brown pelican is between 15-25 years. However, the oldest recorded pelican lifespan was 43 years.

Conservation Status

During the late 1960s and 1970s, brown pelicans became seriously endangered. The heavy use of DDT and other pesticides around the bird’s habitat is solely to blame for this. Luckily, conservationists stepped in, and the toxic chemical was banned. The brown pelican population successfully recovered, putting it in the category of “least concern”.

However, like all living beings, it still faces threats. This includes oil spills and other pollution, loss of habitat, and sea-level rise. Predators to adult brown pelicans include sharks and sea lions. Eggs and young are threatened by bald eagles, rats, raccoons, and other carnivorous predators in these coastal habitats.

Side profile of a Brown Pelican flying in the sky
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