Brown Pelican Facts | Anatomy, Diet, Habitat, Behavior

The brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) is a heavyweight hunter that flies American coastlines in large aerial formations. It is the only pelican species that dives into the sea to catch fish. The bird is a relatively common species as it often visits tourist beaches. The pelican patrols west coast of America from California to as far as northeastern Brazil.

Brown Pelican Facts


  • The brown pelican is smallest of the pelican species but it is greater than most other birds. The bird reaches a length of 106–137 cm (42–54 in) and weighs up to 2.75 to 5.5 kg (6.1 to 12.1 lb).
  • The wingspan measures around 1.83 to 2.5 m (6.0 to 8.2 ft). The brown pelican is quite unique in its range.
  • These pelicans are recognized by their extraordinary large greyish bill that averages 28 to 34.8 cm (11.0 to 13.7 in) in length. There is a gular at the bottom of the pelican’s bill which drains out water when the bird scoops out the fish.


  • The brown pelican breeds in the east and west coast of America. The bird’s range goes from California, northern Chile, northeastern Brazil, to the Caribbean and Galapagos Islands.
  • Brown pelicans are widely distributed across Nova Scotia, Venezuela, and Gulf of Mexico. It is less likely to breed in the north of the Carolinas.


  • Brown pelicans make homes in habitats such as mangrove swamps but they also prefer freshwater lakes. Before the arrival of winter, the bird will fly towards warmer water.
  • They rarely fly away to inland lagoons and wander out to sea. Brown pelicans purely breed in coastlines. The habitat includes rocky shores in Baja California and beach resorts off western South America.

Feeding Ecology and Diet

  • Fish makes much of the brown pelican’s diet but they also prey on amphibians and rarely on crustaceans. Prominent among fish is menhaden which accounts for 90 – 95% of brown pelican’s diet.
  • The brown pelican supplements its diet with anchovy—a food that plays a major role in the nesting success of the bird.
  • The diet also includes pigfish, pinfish, herring, sheepshead, silversides, mullet, minnows, and prawns.
  • The adult brown pelican consumes as much as 1.8 kg (4.0 lb) a day.


  • Brown pelicans are likely to feed and roost together. They are known to gather around in flocks up to 70 birds.
  • The bird spends most of its time either resting on the water surface, perching on rocks, or simply standing on the shoreline.
  • They do not beat their wings too often; pelicans take frequent glides.
  • Pelicans are primarily known for diving and holding prey while flying 10 – 30 inches above the sea.
  • Although they are sociable birds but they do not make contact calls as many other birds do.
  • Pelicans fly in a V-shape formation.
brown pelican facts
LONG BEACH, CA The brown pelican is swooping a fish

Reproductive Biology

  • Brown pelicans build nests in March and April. These nests are built in bushes, trees, on the ground, or on a series of rock ledges. The bird lines its nest with grasses, sticks, reeds, and straw.
  • The pelican’s nest is 10–26 cm high above the ground.
  • There are 2 – 3 eggs in a single clutch. The incubation period lasts about 28 – 30 days. After 35 days the young walk independently but they remain in the nest for 68 – 88 days.
  • Both parents contribute toward rearing the young. They will feed nestlings with 70 kg (150 lb) of fish and the feeding continues up to 8 – 10 months.
  • Brown pelicans attain the maturity at 3 – 5 years of age.
  • Predators include foxes, raptors, feral cats, gulls, and skunks.
  • The average lifespan of brown pelicans is 15 – 25 years.

Conservation Status

Least Concern

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