Brown Pelican

Pelecanus occidentalis
Brown Pelican landing at nesting colony of pelicans and terns

"A Wonderful Bird is the Pelican"

In spite of their ungainly look, Brown Pelicans are graceful flyers and efficient anglers. Watch for a skein of them flying in an undulating arc over the waves as they travel to feeding grounds or search for a school of fish. Brown Pelicans spend their entire life near the ocean. They eat fish which they catch by diving into the water while in flight. As they capture the fish, they hold them in the expandable pouch under their lower beak, then swallow the fish whole.  

Two Brown Pelicans sitting on posts

An Island Nursery

Brown Pelicans live in estuaries and along the coast. They prefer isolated islands and islets with a nearby food source for their breeding colonies. Breton's habitat of mangroves and low shrubs, interior lagoons, and a rich ocean larder of fish provide these requirements. On Breton Island pelicans build ground nests that are depressions lined with vegetation, as well as platform nests in the black mangrove trees. The male and female birds cooperate to gather materials for and build the nest. Pelican parents incubate their eggs with their large fleshy feet, standing over them to protect them. If disturbed while on the nest they may fly suddenly, breaking the eggs. A pelican breeding colony is a noisy place, but parent pelicans can recognize the call of their own young during the crowded nesting season!

Just hatched pelicans in nest

Natural and Human Caused Challenges

The pelicans and seabirds of Breton NWR have faced some challenges from nature and from humans. After recovering from the effects of market hunting and egg collecting in the 1800's to early 1900's, the birds were later challenged by the effects of pesticides used from the 1940's - 1972 which entered the food chain and caused their egg shells to thin. Bald Eagles, Osprey, and Peregrine Falcons faced the same issue - like giant "canaries in the coal mine" these birds alerted us to the effects of poison in the sprays we were using on crops. With protections from the Endangered Species Act, and the banning of DDT and similar pesticides, these birds recovered again.

The 2005 storm season was very bad for the brown pelicans of Breton National Wildlife Refuge (NWR). In June, tropical storm Arlene moved through the Gulf of Mexico, washing over the islands at a time when many juvenile pelicans were unable to escape and many eggs were still in the nests. Furthermore, an oil spill washed directly into the nesting areas and many young pelicans were covered with oil. Some of the pelicans were rescued, rehabilitated and returned to the Refuge but many more did not survive. Later in 2005, the Refuge took a direct hit from Hurricane Katrina, losing 70% of its land base. 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 wildlife was uprooted or damaged.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is working with our partners to respond to the many problems created by storm damages to the islands. It would take many years for the islands to recover naturally (if ever) so we initiated small scale projects like sandfencing, berms, and revegetation to help restore habitat on the islands. We are monitoring the brown pelicans and other birds that return to nest on the islands to document population trends.

 Aerial view of oil boom protecting Breton Island from spill

In 2010, Breton NWR was directly impacted by the oil released from the Deepwater Horizon explosion. The FWS immediately responded and organized containment and absorbent booms around the Refuge. Shrimp boats turned into oil skimmers patrolled the perimeter of the Refuge. In spite of valiant efforts to protect the habitat, impacts to birds and other wildlife on the Refuge occurred. A Natural Resource Damage Assessment is conducting ongoing studies to determine the extent of damages to habitat and long-term impacts to fish and wildlife populations.

There is some good news to report regarding breeding birds at Breton NWR. The number of colonial nesting seabirds nesting on the island has increased since Hurricane Katrina. In 2011, over 8,500 brown pelican nests and over 120,000 tern nests were documented on the refuge, which represents the largest number of pelican nests recorded since Katrina and the largest number of tern nests in over a decade!

Facts About Brown Pelican

Brown Pelicans typically feed by soaring over the water looking for schools of small fish. When they spot a meal they tuck and dive head first into the water. They may dive from as high as 60 feet! As the bird plunges into the water its throat pouch traps the fish. Pelicans can also be pirates, stealing fish from other birds.
Average Lifespan
A pelican can live 15 - 25 years, the oldest Brown Pelican on record was 43 years old.
70 - 176 oz (2000-5000 grams)
Length 39-54 " (100-137 cm)
Wingspan 79 "  (200 cm)