NATURAL HISTORY

EASTERN BROWN PELICAN } Pelecanus occidentalis carolinensis
FAMILY: Pelecanidae

DESCRIPTION: The brown pelican is a large, dark seabird with a long bill and extensible throat pouch, about four feet overall length with a wingspan of six to seven feet and weighing about four to 11 pounds. Adults have gray to gray-brown upperparts, and black and silver striped undersurfaces with black-brown bellies. Brown pelicans have three annual plumages. For most of the year, the head is pale yellow and the neck is white Before the onset of breeding, the head turns brighter yellow and the neck turns dark brown. During nesting the head is white, sometimes speckled, and the neck is brown. Males have larger bills and weigh more than females.

HABITAT: Outside of Florida, the pelican primarily nests on islands in stands of dense, low shrubs or herbaceous plants, but nests can also be built on bare sand or shell. Pelicans prefer predator-free islands that lack human disturbance and are near an adequate and consistent food supply. Because pelicans’ nesting islands are typically at or only a few feet above sea level, they are highly susceptible to erosion and flooding from storm surges and spring tides.

RANGE: In the United States, the eastern brown pelican nests along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts from Maryland to Florida and west to Texas.

MIGRATION: Where weather and prey conditions permit, eastern brown pelicans remain in their breeding range year-round, though some populations undertake post-breeding migrations. In the Gulf of Mexico, the pelican is largely nonmigratory.

BREEDING: Pelicans lay two to three eggs and incubate them for approximately 30 days, with chicks fledging after approximately 12 weeks. The timing of pelican nesting varies based on climate and prey availability — in Louisiana, pelicans nest from March through August, while in southern Florida nesting can begin in the fall.

LIFE CYCLE: Pelicans typically begin breeding at ages three to five, but some breed after one or two years. Pelicans usually live for more than a decade, but only three individuals have been known to live more than 20 years, reaching 31, 37 and 43 years of age. Based on banding data, only 30 percent of pelicans survive their first year, and only 2 percent survive to age ten.

FEEDING HABITS: Pelicans prey on surface schooling fishes smaller than 25 cm —  including Gulf menhaden, mullet, Atlantic threadfin, spot and pinfish — by diving and scooping water and fish into their throat pouches.

THREATS: The U.S. population of eastern brown pelican is threatened by habitat loss and degradation, oil pollution, global climate change, entanglement in fishing gear, and tick infestation of nesting colonies. Climate change will result in more frequent and intense hurricanes and rising sea levels, which can destroy nesting sites and cause flood-related mortality, as well as decreased prey availability. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill killed thousands of pelicans and destroyed numerous nesting islands, putting the bird in more danger than it has faced for many yeas.

POPULATION TREND: Based on the most recent publicly available data, the total population of U.S. eastern brown pelican has held steady over the last decade at around 40,000 nesting pairs. The Gulf supports approximately 60 percent of the total U.S. population, and the number of nesting pelicans has declined in Louisiana, Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina. The effects of the 2010 BP oil spill on the pelican population are dire and will persist for decades.

 

Photo by Glen Tepke