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California Brown Pelican
Pelecanus occidentalis

General Information

Official Status: De-listed, the brown pelican has been de-listed throughout it range in Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, California, Oregon, Washington, Mexico, Central and South America, and the West Indies.

Delisting Status: On February 20, 2008, the Service published a proposed rule in the Federal Register to remove the Brown Pelican throughout its range from the list of endangered and threatened species. This proposed delisting followed an extensive 5-year status review (pdf, 3 MB) of population levels and current threats to the species

Date Listed: June 2, 1970; Federal Register 35 FR 16047

Date de-listed: The Fish and Wildlife Service removed the brown pelican from the list of threatened and endangered species, effective November 17, 2009.

Critical Habitat: Critical habitat has not been designated for the brown pelican.

Recovery Plan: The California Brown Pelican Recovery Plan, (pdf, 4 MB)completed in 1983, describes the biology of the brown pelican on the west coast, the reasons for its decline, and the actions needed to recover and delist the species.

California Brown Pelican Photograph, USFWS File Photo

California Brown Pelican

Photo Credit:USFWS File Photograph

arrow button Photo Gallery for the Brown Pelican

Identifying Characteristics:

The brown pelican is one of two species of pelican in North America. This species is easily identified by its typical pelican form, huge bill and pouch, gray-brown plumage, and contrasting dark brown and white neck and head in adults. The brown pelican weighs up to 8 pounds and may have a wingspan of 7 feet. Several subspecies of brown pelican occur in the Americas; individuals living on the west coast of North America belong to the subspecies California brown pelican (P. o. californicus).

Current Geographic Range:

Nesting colonies of brown pelicans on the Pacific coast are located from the Channel Islands in the Southern California Bight to the islands off Nayarit, Mexico. Prior to 1959, intermittent nesting was observed as far north as Point Lobos in Monterey County, California. Since that time, the breeding distribution of the brown pelican in California has been restricted to Anacapa Island in the Channel Islands off southern California. More recently, the expanding population of brown pelicans have established other smaller breeding sites on this island group. Brown pelicans have not nested north of the Channel Islands since the subspecies' major population decline in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Non-breeding pelicans, including juveniles and non-breeding adults, disperse during the late spring, summer and early fall months as far north as southern British Columbia, Canada, and south into southern Mexico and Central America.

Life History:

The nesting season for the brown pelican occurs in summer and autumn. Adult pairs congregate in densely populated nesting colonies on offshore islands. Adults fly out to sea to forage by plunge diving into fish schools near the surface of the water. When prey species are abundant in very shallow water, pelicans may forage by scooping these small fish from the water surface. Juveniles grow rapidly during years when fish are abundant, but substantial juvenile mortality may occur during years when populations of prey species decline. Pelicans require several years to reach sexual maturity, during which they wander along the coast from Central America to very southwestern British Columbia. Northerly movements are generally restricted to warmer seasons of the year, most commonly June through October.

General Habitat Characteristics:

Brown pelicans nest in colonies on offshore islands that are free of mammalian predators and human disturbance, are of sufficient elevation to prevent flooding of nests, and are associated with an adequate and consistent food supply. Brown pelicans roost communally, generally in areas that are near adequate food supplies, have some type of physical barrier to predation and disturbance, and provide some protection from environmental stresses such as wind and high surf. The brown pelican uses breakwaters, jetties, sand spits and offshore sand bars extensively as daily loafing and nocturnal roost areas. Brown pelican numbers in a given area may vary greatly with the season. The brown pelican is rarely found away from salt water and does not normally venture more than 20 miles out to sea.

Population and Habitat Status:

North American populations underwent dramatic declines during the 1960s and early 1970s due to eggshell thinning induced by pesticides. Although populations have recovered substantially from these declines, they continue to show substantial inter-annual variation in productivity as related to prey availability, disturbance at colonies, and disease outbreaks. Breeding effort, productivity and survival are lower during El Nino climatic events. Populations at California colonies increased during the 1980s and were relatively stable during the 1990s. The Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that 12,000 individual California brown pelicans (6,000 pairs) breed in southern California in recent years, composing approximately 12 percent of the California subspecies (about 100,000 breeding birds). The largest portion of the population includes subadults and non-breeding adults that move far up the west coast during summer. In 2002, as many as 11,000 California brown pelicans roosted on East Sand Island at the mouth of the Columbia River.


The susceptibility to organochloride pesticide residues was the primary factor contributing to the endangerment of the brown pelican. The pesticide contributed to its endangerment via two mechanisms: direct toxicity and impaired reproduction. The impairment of reproduction has been attributed primarily to the organochloride pesticide DDT and its principal metabolite DDE. These substances, which are not easily broken down through metabolic processes, accumulate in the tissues of species at the top of the food chain, such as the brown pelican. DDE interferes with calcium deposition during shell formation, resulting in the production of thin-shelled eggs that are susceptible to accidental damage during incubation. Since the Environmental Protection Agency banned the use of DDT and similar pesticides in 1972, the threat of organochloride pesticide pollution has been greatly reduced, and the residues of those persistent compounds in brown pelican eggs have shown a steady decrease. Other factors implicated in the decline of this subspecies include human disturbance at nesting colonies and food shortages.

Conservation Needs:

Since the time of the brown pelican's original listing, the Environmental Protection Agency has placed a ban on the use of DDT in the United States and has sharply curtailed the used of endrin. As a result, the environmental residue levels of these persistent compounds have steadily decreased in most areas. Pesticide residue levels in brown pelican eggs have steadily decreased since they were first measured. There has also been a corresponding increase in the eggshell thickness and reproductive success of brown pelicans, as well as in many other avian predators such as bald eagles and peregrine falcons. Consequently, populations of brown pelicans on the west coast of the U.S. have substantially increased during the past two decades. Continued restriction on the use of such chemicals is necessary to ensure successful reproduction and continued population increase. As populations increase and expand into formerly occupied habitat, new nesting colonies may become established. These new colonies, as well as foraging and resting habitat throughout the species range, should continue to receive protection from chemical pollution, mammalian predation, and unnecessary human disturbance. Another primary goal of ongoing management of nesting habitat in the Channel Islands and elsewhere is the protection of essential nesting sites from predation, habitat loss, and human disturbance.

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Last updated: April 11, 2011

Arcata Fish and Wildlife Office, 1655 Heindon Road, Arcata, California 95521, USA
Tel: (707) 822.7201 Fax: (707) 822.8411