U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Sacramento Fish & Wildlife OfficeServing the people, conserving the fish, wildlife, and plants of California

A Unit Of The Pacific Southwest Region

Kids' Species Information

California Brown Pelican

Photo: George Gentry, USFWS

California Brown Pelican


white and brown pelicans at Pelican Island

Photo: George Gentry, USFWS

RECOVERED AND DELISTED! This means it is no longer on the endangered species list. Yay!

The pelican’s recovery is largely due to the ban of the pesticide DDT in 1972. This was done after former Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Rachel Carson published Silent Spring. She alerted the nation to the dangers of pesticide use. Read about Rachel Carlson.


Brown Pelicans are large birds. Adults weigh about 2-5 kilograms. (About 4.5-11 pounds) Their wingspan is over 2 meters. (About 6.5 feet) Males are larger than females.

Pelicans are water birds. So they have webbed feet.

Brown Pelicans are smaller than white ones, but CA Brown Pelicans are larger than other browns. See photo of White and Brown Pelicans together at Pelican Island.

Brown Pelicans have keen eyesight. As they fly over the ocean, they can spot a school of small fish, or even a single fish. Diving steeply into the water come up with a mouthful of fish. Air sacs beneath their skin cushion the impact and help them come to the surface.

brown pelican

Photo: USFWS

Adults are large, grayish-brown birds with long, pouched bills. They have a white or yellowish head and dark body. Immature birds are dark with a white belly. This is a common protective pattern. It blends the animal into either the sky or the ocean/ground.


Brown Pelicans make spectacular headfirst dives into the water to catch fish. They have long bills with big pouches for catching and holding the fish. In California, they feed on sardines, mackerels and anchovies.


Pelicans breed in colonies on islands without mammal predators. They build nests of sticks on the ground. All courtship happens at the nest site.

Normal clutch size is three eggs. These are laid in March or April. Both parents take turns sitting on the eggs and feeding the chicks.


Adults have few predators. Once in a while, a shark will attack when they dive. The main threat is to eggs. Other birds, raccoons, cats and dogs are some of the egg predators.


Non-breeding CA Brown Pelicans range from the Gulf of California to southern British Columbia. They nest on islands in the Gulf of California and along the coast to West Anacapa and Santa Barbara Islands. They are rarely seen either inland or far out at sea.


The biggest threat to Brown Pelicans was the pesticide DDT. Brown Pelicans were listed as endangered in 1970. DDT was banned in 1972. Brown pelicans have recovered enough to be removed from the endangered species list. But there still are other threats.

Pelicans depend on anchovies and sardines. These have declined due to over-fishing. The number of chicks born each year also varies depending climate changes. We are working to understand how climate change will affect them.

Pelicans are also threatened by the oil spills, entanglement with hooks and fishing line, and disease outbreaks from overcrowding.


There are many things you can do to protect birds. Here is some information on migratory bird conservation. It is about migratory song birds. But much of it applies to all birds.

brown pelicans at Pt. Reyes

Photo: Carley Sweet, USFWS

Keep your cat inside. Cats kill millions of birds per year. Even well-fed cats kill birds. It is just their nature to hunt. Living indoors is also much safer for the cats themselves.

When you go to the beach, pay attention to signs warning you that birds are nesting. Many shore birds nest right on the beach. They are easily disturbed. Don't let your dog chase or bark at them.

Whenever you go to natural areas, observe any signs telling you how to protect wildlife and plants.

See What You Can Do to Help Wildlife and Plants (201 KB PDF) for more ideas.


Pt. Reyes National Seashore is a great place to see Brown Pelicans. It is also a wonderful place to see other rare species. Many of these animals and wildflowers are listed as threatened or endangered.


Rachel Carson in the FL Keys around 1955 with artist Bob Hines

Photo: USFWS

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, pelicans were hunted for their feathers. These were used on women's hats. In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt made Florida's Pelican Island the first national wildlife refuge to protect the birds. Visit the refuge web site.

In 1962, Rachel Carson made the world aware of the effects of DDT and other chemicals on birds in her book The Silent Spring. Carson was a former Fish & Wildlife Service biologist.


Fact Sheet (844 KB PDF)

Thelander, C. ed. 1994. Life on the edge: a guide to California's endangered natural resources. BioSystem Books. Santa Cruz, CA. p 132-135.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds page on brown pelicans has a recording of their sounds. The site has lots of other useful information.

Photo credits: Most of the pelicans in these pictures are not members of the California subspecies. The picture of pelicans against the setting sun is by Ryan Hagerty. It was taken at Pelican Island NWR. The close-up image of one pelican is a FWS photo. We don't have any more info on it. The picture of Brown and White Pelicans at Pelican Island is by George Gentry. The photo of a young Brown Pelican in a nest is by Donna Dewhurst. It was taken at Breton NWR.

The Pt. Reyes shot is by former Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Carley Sweet. The picture of Rachel Carson shows her with wildlife artist Bob Hines in the Florida Keys around 1955.

Words to Learn

Scientists who study birds are called ornithologists.

Ornithologists call the brown pelican Pelecanus occidentalis. Scientific names are in Latin or Greek.

The California brown pelican is a subspecies. So we add californicus for California.

Pelicans are in the Pelecanidae family.

The common names of bird species are capitalized. So we write Brown Pelican. But if you are writing about pelicans in general, you should use lower case. Learn more from this Wikipedia article.

See a basic bird diagram (483 KB PDF).

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Last updated: November 29, 2017