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Times of the Islands Magazine

Brown Pelican of Florida’s Coasts: The State’s Most Conspicuous and Widely Recognized Bird Species

Jun 03, 2022 07:06PM ● By WILLIAM R. COX

The easily recognizable eastern brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis carolinensis) is an annual resident on both coasts in Florida. This iconic subspecies can also be found from eastern Venezuela through the Gulf of Mexico, as well as the Caribbean and then northward along the east coast to Virginia and Maryland.  

There are seven species of pelicans in the world, of which only two breed in North America: the brown pelican and American white pelican (P. erythrorhynchos). The brown pelican breeds along both coasts of Florida on mostly mangrove islands. The white pelican is a migrant and winter resident of Florida from October to April and does not breed here.  

The brown pelican sports four plumages. The juvenile plumage is dark above with white underparts. In the second year, its head and neck are a dull brown, and its belly and breast are dark. The nonbreeding adult has white neck feathers, dark grayish-brown body feathers, and white and yellow feathers on top of the head. The breeding adult is similar except the neck has dark reddish-brown feathers on the sides and back.  

Easily identified by its oversized, pouched bill, this large seabird is four feet long with a wingspread of seven feet. It is smaller than the American white pelican, which is four to six feet long with a wingspread of 10 feet. 

On average the brown pelican lives for 19 to 25 years. Its habitat includes coastal shores, estuaries, bays, sandbars, and small coastal islands ranging in size from 12 to 25 acres. Most of these nesting islands are vegetated with black mangrove and red mangrove. Successful nesting depends on good foraging areas nearby. The brown pelican needs places not only to nest and feed, but also for loafing and roosting, such as sandbars. All these habitats need to be mammalian predator-free. Birds associated with brown pelicans on coastal beaches and mangrove islands include herons, egrets, ibises, spoonbills, storks, terns, gulls, loons, cormorants, sea ducks, and ospreys.  

The brown pelican is a colony nester. Its groups usually contain several hundred birds. The male displays at the colony site to attract a female. The female sits on the ground while the male circles around the female throwing its head back in a head-swaying display and slightly lifting its wings. The female flies to the water with the male in pursuit. The nest site is selected by the female, and both sexes build the nest in a mangrove or prepare a scrape on the ground. 

Egg-laying commences three days after nest completion. Clutch sizes are usually two to three eggs laid over four to six days. Each pair produces only one brood per year. Egg-laying in Florida starts in December and February, and nesting continues through the summer. 

Both parents incubate the eggs for 28 to 36 days. Hatching is asynchronous. The nestlings fledge at 71-88 days. They are fed fish regurgitant.  

The brown pelican is the only exclusively marine pelican species and the only one that plunge-dives for its fish prey. When spotting its prey, it begins a steep dive from 20 to 30 feet over the water, sometimes as high as 65 feet. It partially submerges in the water headfirst with its wings pulled back. After entering the water, it opens its large bill with the extendible pouch, which expands like a balloon holding more than 21 pints or 17.5 pounds of water with fish prey.  

Sitting on the water, the brown pelican then holds its bill downward, slowly draining all the water, and then raises the bill straight up to swallow the captured fish. At this point gulls and terns descend on feeding pelicans to steal fish from their bills (kleptoparasitism). The pelican frequently throws its head back in performing a longitudinal stretch of its bill to keep the skin taut. Its principal prey in Florida includes menhaden, Atlantic threadfin, mullet, Spanish sardines, drum species, and pinfish. 

The brown pelican was almost extirpated in the 1950s and 1960s from DDT and endrin pesticide poisoning. It is now vulnerable to habitat loss and degradation, poor water quality, oil spills, and recreational disturbance at nesting, loafing, and roosting sites. Scientists have recommended a 600-meter protection zone from human disturbance to enhance breeding success.  

Mortality from entanglement in monofilament fishing line is another serious problem. Education and protection of all pelican habitats and awareness of the dangers of fishing line would greatly enhance the well-being of the eastern brown pelican. 


William R. Cox has been a professional nature photographer and ecologist for more than 35 years. Visit him online at