(Map may reflect historical as well as recent sightings)
In 1970, under a law that preceded the Endangered Species
Act of 1973, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the brown
pelican as endangered. A recovery plan was published in 1983.
In November 2009, the Brown Pelican was removed from the Endangered Species List.
Historical Status and
There are two geographically and genetically distinct
regional populations, or subspecies, of brown pelican that occur
in North America. They are the California brown pelican (P.
o. californicus), ranging from California to Chile, and the eastern
brown pelican (P. o. carolinensis), which occurs along the Atlantic
and Gulf coasts, the Caribbean, and the Central and South American
coasts. Consumption of pesticide-laden fish, lack of food, and
disturbances by humans were responsible for a marked decline in
reproductive success, and consequently a decline in numbers of
both brown pelican subspecies in the 1960s and 1970s. The eastern
brown pelican remains endangered in Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas,
Central and South America and the West Indies, but has been removed
from the list in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and
North Carolina. Current information indicates that the California
brown pelican has sufficiently recovered as a result of restrictions
on the use of certain types of pesticides (organochlorines), and
this news has prompted a proposal to delist this subspecies. A
final ruling on this action is pending.
The brown pelican is a warm weather species that thrives near
coasts and on islands. The California brown pelican generally
uses the rocky islands along the California coast for their group,
or "colonial," nest sites. These islands typically feature
steep, rocky slopes with little vegetation, and they must be without
terrestrial predators or human disturbances. Nearby high quality
marine habitat is also essential. Brown pelicans rely in part
on the actions of marine predators such as sharks, salmon, and
dolphins to force schools of fish to the surface where the pelicans
can catch them. Pelicans will breed only in areas with
enough food to support the breeding colony. Roosting and resting,
or "loafing," sites where brown pelicans can dry their
feathers and rest without disturbance are also important.
Brown pelicans build large, bulky nests on the ground or in bushes
and lay an average of three eggs, which the parents take turns
incubating. After 30 days, the eggs hatch and the helpless young
require constant warmth and attention for several weeks afterwards.
At about 12 to 13 weeks of age, when they are able to fly, the
young are left to fend for themselves. Unskilled at obtaining
food, many young pelicans don't survive this period. Juvenile
birds typically leave the home colony and begin to reproduce
at about two years of age. Pelicans are known to live for approximately
30 years, but the average may be much less than that due to predation,
disease, starvation, etc.
Reasons for Decline
Brown pelicans received severe exposure to DDT and other contaminants
through consumption of contaminated fish. As was the case with
many birds, this exposure resulted in the production of eggs with
thin eggshells that were unable to withstand the weight of the
parent during incubation, resulting in crushed eggs instead of
healthy chicks. As a consequence, the number of chicks produced
each year declined dramatically, and the population was severely
Other factors, including local food shortages and human disturbance,
also contributed to the decline of the species. Pelicans require
undisturbed habitat and abundant supplies of fish, particularly
during the breeding season. If nesting pelicans are startled while
on the nest, their abrupt departure often crushes their eggs.
If sufficient food supplies are not readily available, pelicans
will abandon breeding colonies. Factors contributing to decreased
food availability include commercial fishing and naturally-occurring
increases in ocean water temperature.
In the early 1970s, the use of DDT was banned, and
restrictions controlling the use of other pesticides were imposed
in the United States. As a result, pelican reproduction improved.
Sanctuaries, reserves, and natural areas have been established
to protect nesting habitat and fledging areas from human disturbances
and to preserve nearby marine resources. Reduction of contaminant
levels, habitat protection, and conservation of food resources
have led to the successful recovery of the California brown pelican
population to self-sustaining levels and contributed toward the delisting of this subspecies.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 1983. California Brown Pelican
Recovery Plan. Portland, Oregon. 179 pp.