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Brown Pelican

Brown Pelican

Scientific name: Pelecanus occidentalis 

Status: Delisted 

Listed Activity: 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 Current Trends

    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 reduced. Other factors, including local food shortages and human disturbance, also contributed to the decline of the species.

    Brown pelicans visit the Washington coast seasonally, typically from April through November. Over the past decade as many as 16,000 brown pelicans have been spotted during annual surveys in the Columbia River estuary and off the southern Washington coast.

    Life History

    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.


    The brown pelican is a warm weather species that thrives near coasts and on islands. The brown pelican generally uses the rocky islands along the 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.

    In Washington, brown pelicans gather in communal roosts on sandy islands, exposed shoals, and a few artificial structures in the Columbia River, Grays Harbor, and Willapa Bay estuaries, and rocky islands off the coast of the Olympic Peninsula. East Sand Island, Oregon, in the Columbia River estuary is currently the largest night roost for brown pelicans in the region.

    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.


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