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Eastern Brown Pelican

Eastern Brown Pelican

Pelecanus occidentalis                             Photo Fiona Sunquist ©



The Eastern Brown Pelican is common along Florida’s coasts, but rarely seen inland or very far out to sea. (Winter distribution map)

The Eastern Brown Pelican is one of the largest birds on the east coast of the US and the only pelican that is not white.  Adult males and females are similar in appearance - they weigh eight to ten pounds (3.6 – 4.5 kg) and have a wingspan of 7 feet (2.1 m).

Easily identified by their pouched bills, brown pelicans are plunge divers – a feeding technique that distinguishes them from white pelicans, which are surface feeders.

Brown pelicans have very keen eyesight and can spot fish from 50 to 60 feet in the air. They capture their prey by plunge diving from considerable height or scooping the fish from the water in their pouched bill.  When they have caught the fish, they tilt their bill to let the water drain out, then quickly swallow the fish.    Pelicans need as much as four pounds of fish a day, and contrary to the belief that they steal fish from fishermen, they concentrate mainly on commercially unimportant species like herring, pigfish, mullet, sheepshead and top minnows.

Though they look large and ungainly, pelicans are excellent flyers and lines of them are often seen flying single file along the beach, using updrafts from buildings to help them soar.  They are also strong swimmers – young birds that are barely able to fly can swim well.

Pelicans are social, gregarious birds; juveniles and adults spend most of the year in large flocks. They nest in large colonies either on the ground on small offshore islands, or in mangrove trees.  They reach sexual maturity at about three years of age.  Peak egg laying occurs in March and April, females lay two or three chalky white eggs, which hatch in about a month.  Young are able to fly by the time they are about 75 days old.

Brown pelicans were once hunted for their feathers, which were used, on women’s hats.  Later, during World War I, fishermen regularly killed thousands of pelicans because they thought the birds were ruining the fishing industry.  In the 1940’s pelicans were badly affected by DDT.  They fed on fish contaminated by the pesticide and this caused the birds to lay eggs with shells so thin that they broke during incubation.  In 1970 the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service listed the brown pelican as an endangered species.  By the mid 1970’s the Florida population of Brown pelicans was estimated at 30,000.

After DDT was banned in 1972, the brown pelican began to recover, and in 1985, when numbers in Florida had reached about 60,000 the bird was removed from the Endangered Species list in that part of its range.

The swift and almost complete disappearance of brown pelicans in the face of environmental pesticide contamination has led to the conclusion that pelicans may be more sensitive to chemical contamination than other species.

Brown pelicans are also susceptible to cold.  Extended periods of cold weather cause areas of frostbite on the feet and pouch.  These can become necrotic and seriously impair the bird’s ability to survive.

Sport fishing equipment causes significant mortality in brown pelicans.  Embedded hooks and entanglement in monofilament line kills many birds.  Entangled birds return to the roost dragging yards of line.  The line becomes tangled in the vegetation and ensnares other birds.  As many as 6 birds have been found entangled in 30 yards of line.  One estimate suggests that 80% of brown pelicans had been injured by fishing equipment, and some 500 birds die each year from these injuries.



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Wildlife of Florida 2011
Wildlife of Florida 2011
Fiona Sunquist
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Wildlife of Florida: Lizards
Fiona Sunquist
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