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Brown Pelican Habitat

Pelican Web Menu With Graphic Hot Links Click here to go to the Breton NWR Home Page Click here to go to the Breton NWR Home Page Click here to go to the pelican web home page Click here to go to the pelican biology page Clck here to go to the pelican habitat page Click here to see the pelican location maps Click here to see our partners in pelican conservation Click here to see links to more information

To navigate around the "pelican web" use the menu to the right.

The brown pelican nesting grounds are a critical part of the pelicans habitat. Thousands of brown pelicans come to Breton National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) every year to nest and raise their young.

As shown on the maps, the young birds and adults then migrate to various location around the Gulf of Mexico.  In those locations they live in pairs and small groups but return to Breton NWR to nest in large colonies.   As shown on the maps, the pelicans seldom travel inland.

The pelican has learned that there's safety in numbers and in the isolation of the off-shore islands but there's also risk. The risk is that one catastrophic event (natural or man-made) could destroy an entire colony or all the young in a colony. The obvious catastrophic risks in the Gulf of Mexico near Breton NWR are oil spills or early season hurricanes that hit before the young pelicans have gained strength and fledged (learned to fly.)

Other serious but less catastrophic risks include the gradual loss of habitat from erosion by storms and wind, long term low level pollution, disruption by humans and loss of food sources (fish) in the Gulf of Mexico.

Photo of oil covered, juvenile brown pelicans that will soon be washed to remove the oil
© Tom Carlisle

Tropical Storm Arlene and Hurricane Katrina: The 2005 storm season was very bad for the pelicans of Breton NWR. In June, tropical storm Arlene moved through the Gulf of Mexico. The storm washed over the islands at a time when many flightless juvenile pelicans were unable to escape and many eggs were still in the nests. On top of that, an oil spill from an oil production platform was washed directly into the nesting areas and many young pelicans were covered with oil. Many of those pelicans were rescued, rehabilitated and returned to the refuge but many more did not survive.

Breton NWR also took a direct hit from Hurricane Katrina. There was significant erosion of the islands such that large areas of beach and marsh were destroyed and much of the vegetation that stabilizes the islands and provides habitat for the pelicans and other animals was uprooted or damaged. The Chandeleur Island Lighthouse was destroyed.

Good News: There is some good news to report regarding the brown pelicans at Breton NWR. As many as 2,000 brown pelican nests have been reported on the refuge since Hurricane Katrina. The pelican nests, eggs and chicks remain vulnerable through the tropical storm season each year and until they have fledged and can forage on their own. As always, we hope to avoid damage from early tropical storms and devastating hurricanes.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with our partners to respond to the many problems created by the damage to the islands. It would take many years for the islands to recover naturally (if ever) so we will do what we can to rebuild and re-vegetate the islands. We are also monitoring the pelicans and other birds that return to nest on the islands and nearby, less desirable habitat to determine the long term impact on this endangered species.

Aerial photo of the beach and marsh on one of the islands of Breton NWR
All photos this page: Credit USFWS, except as noted
Aerial photo of habitat typical of pelican nesting habitat. This is Chandeleur Island before Hurricane Katrina. The primary brown pelican nesting colony is on Breton Island. The Gulf of Mexico side of the islands (generally, east) is the "beach" side and the Chandeleur Sound and Breton Sound side of the islands (generally, west) is the "marsh" side. Both the beach and the marsh side of the islands are vulnerable to the erosive effects of storm surge and wind. These long, narrow islands can literally be cut in half or washed away by a storm. Sometimes they're gradually rebuilt naturally and sometimes they need our help.

Nesting pelican on Breton Island. The male and female share nesting and chick care duty. The pelican nest is made of beach or marsh grass and other plant material.

Photo of an adult brown pelican on the nest incubating eggs
Photo of a pelican colony nesting ground Pelican colony on Breton Island. The adults bring food back to the chicks. If the chicks have wandered off, the parents call to find them. The chicks "imprint" on their parents and their call so they almost always return to be fed. Public access to the island is restricted during the busy and crowded nesting season.
Adult pelicans on Breton Island. The pelicans share the island with several species of terns, shore birds and seabirds.
Photo of adult pelicans near the beach
Photo of a sign documenting a beach restoration project at Breton NWR

This sign documents island restoration projects on Breton Island. The projects were completed with the assistance of the numerous partners mentioned on the Partners page and the Links page.

Pelican colony on Breton Island. Breton Island has interior lagoons and channels that offer calm water for the pelicans. The vegetation shown in this photo is typical. There are various beach and marsh grasses as well as mangroves and some low-growing shrubs.
Photo of another pelican colony

Last Updated on January 13, 2011