The brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) is a small pelican found in the Americas. It is one of the best known and most prominent birds found in the coastal areas of the southern and western United States. It is one of only three pelican species found in the Western Hemisphere. The brown pelican is one of the only two pelican species which feeds by diving into the water.
The brown pelican is the smallest of the eight species of pelican, although it is a large bird in nearly every other regard. It is 106–137 cm (42–54 in) in length, weighs from 2.75 to 5.5 kg (6.1 to 12.1 lb) and has a wingspan from 1.83 to 2.5 m (6.0 to 8.2 ft). Through most of its range, the brown pelican is an unmistakable bird. Like all pelicans, this species has a very large bill, 28 to 34.8 cm (11.0 to 13.7 in) long in this case, with a gular pouch on the bottom for draining water when it scoops out prey. The head is white but often gets a yellowish wash in adult birds. The bill is grayish overall in most birds, though breeding birds become reddish on the underside of the throat. The back, rump, and tail are streaked with gray and dark brown, sometimes with a rusty hue. In adult pelicans, the breast and belly are a blackish-brown and the legs and feet are black. The juvenile is similar but has a brownish-gray neck and white underparts.
This bird is readily distinguished from the American white pelican by its non-white plumage, smaller size and its habit of diving for fish from the air, as opposed to co-operative fishing from the surface. The Peruvian pelican, previously considered a subspecies of brown pelican, is now considered to be a separate species. It has very similar plumage to the brown, but it is noticeably larger. The brown and Peruvian pelicans may overlap in some areas along the Pacific coast of South America.
The brown pelican lives on both coasts in the Americas. On the Atlantic Coast and Gulf Coast they distribute from Nova Scotia to Venezuela, and to the mouth of the Amazon River. Along the Atlantic, they are usually less common north of the Carolinas, with a considerable population in much of the Gulf of Mexico. On the Pacific Ocean they are found from British Columbia to south central Chile, and including the Galapagos Islands. In the Pacific, they are fairly common along the coast of California, Mexico and Central America. Some immature birds may stray to inland freshwater lakes. After nesting, North American birds move in flocks further north along the coasts, returning to warmer waters for winter. They are also common in Mangrove swamps.
Pelicans are very gregarious birds; they live in flocks of both sexes throughout the year. They are exceptionally buoyant due to the internal air sacks beneath their skin and in their bones, and as graceful in the air as they are clumsy on land. In level flight, pelicans fly in groups, with their heads held back on their shoulders, the bills resting on their folded necks. They may fly in a “V”, but usually in regular lines or single file, often low over the water’s surface.
When foraging, they dive bill-first like a kingfisher often submerging completely below the surface momentarily as they snap up prey. Upon surfacing they spill the water from the throat pouch before swallowing their catch. Only the Peruvian pelican shares this active foraging style, while other pelicans forage more inactively by scooping up corralled fish while swimming on the surface of the water. Juvenile brown pelicans have been observed foraging in the surface-swimming matter of other pelicans. They are occasional targets of kleptoparasitism by other fish-eating birds such as gulls, skuas and frigatebirds.
Although the brown pelican eats mostly fish, an occasional amphibian or crustacean may supplement the diet. Menhaden may locally account for 90–95% of their food. The anchovy supply is particularly important to the nesting success of the brown pelican. However, their preferred prey are usually not commercially fished species. Other fish preyed on with some regularity can include pigfish, pinfish, herring, sheepshead, silversides, mullet, and minnows, and they sometimes eat crustaceans, usually prawns. A single adult pelican can eat up to 1.8 kg (4.0 lb) each day. Today, in many coastal areas, brown pelicans will loaf around fishing ports and piers in hopes of being fed or stealing scraps of fish, especially if conditioned to do.