Eastern Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis)

Photograph - Eastern Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis occidentalis)


Other Names
Brown Pelican
Texas Status
U.S. Status
Endangered, Listed 10/13/1970

The brown pelican has an 18-inch long bill and large throat pouch. Its head is white in front and dark brown behind, extending down the neck and back. During the breeding season, the white plumage turns a vibrant yellowish-gold color. Silver-gray feathers cover the rest of the pelican's body. The brown pelican weighs about 9 pounds and has a 6-foot wingspan.

Life History

When feeding, pelicans soar in the air looking for fish near the surface of the water. When a fish is spotted, the pelican goes into a dive, plunging 30 to 60 feet bill-first into the water. The impact of hitting the water would kill an ordinary bird, but the pelican is equipped with air sacs just beneath the skin to cushion the blow.

The loose skin on the underside of the bill extends to form a scoop net with an amazing capacity of 2.5 gallons. The pelican drains the water from its pouch and tosses its head back to swallow the fish. Their diet consists of menhaden and mullet fish. They lay 2 to 4 white eggs during breeding season, and live up to 30 years or more. Young pelicans are fed for about 9 weeks. During this time, each nestling will eat about 150 pounds of fish.


Brown pelicans nest on small, isolated coastal islands where they are safe from predators such as raccoons and coyotes.

Distribution of the Eastern Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis)

Brown pelicans are found along the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts.


Pelicans almost disappeared from Texas because they were poisoned by the pesticide DDT, which caused them to lay thin-shelled eggs which broke during incubation. Because they were not able to produce young, the number of pelicans dropped to less than 100 birds during the years 1967-1974. Since DDT was banned in 1972, pelicans have made a steady comeback.