Brown Pelican

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Name: Brown Pelican
Scientific name: Pelicanus occidentalis carolinensis
Range: coast in California,from North Carolina to Texas, Newmexico, West Indies, Caribbean Islands, to Guyana and Venezuela in south America.
Habitat: Estuaries and small coastal islands
Status: Recovering.  Brown pelicans populations were declared endangered during the 70's because of the production of fragile, thin-shelled eggs by birds exposed to pesticides. 
Diet in the wild:   They eat  fish
Diet in the zoo: they are fed with fish
Location in the zoo: Texas Wild:  Gulf Coast

Physical description: 
  • Height:  42 to 54 inches
  • Weight:  8 to 10 pounds
  • Wingspan:   6 1/2- to 7 1/2 feet
  • Plumage:  dark gray-brown, white head and lower neck.
  • Long bill with a hooked tip and a 
  • pouch, dark on Atlantic Gulf coasts; bill paler along Pacific coast, becoming bright yellow during the breeding season.
  • It has short tail. 
  • Male and female are similar

Photo: Brown Pelican in June
Brown Pelican in September

The brown pelican is a large dark gray-brown water bird with white over the head and the front of the neck.  The back of the neck is covered with rich brown feathers.  In the breeding season the head feathers turn yellow.  Pelican legs are short, their necks and their feet have four toes, webbed to aid in swimming. 

General information:

Nesting brown pelicans showing breeding plumage.

Brown pelicans feed in shallow coastal waters, usually within 20 miles of shore.   They are  never spotted inland.  Brown pelicans dive for their meals in the water, feeding mostly on middle-sized fish.  They will also eat small fish, like anchovies, invertebrates, and food scraps dropped by humans. 

Pelicans can form flocks that contain both males and females. Pelicans in flight may be confused with  cranes, but the pelican's neck is not extended, but is folded back to rest on the back. 

Brown pelicans nest in large colonies, laying their eggs in nests on the ground.  Young pelicans are hatched while very immature, but they grow quickly.  Both parents participate in caring for the young birds.  They can carry tiny fish to feed their babies.  To feed their young, they first swallow the fish and then open their mouths wide so that the young reach way down their parents throats to their gulletJuvenile pelicans congregate in creches after leaving the nest.  However, even in these large groups, parents can recognize and feed their own offspring. 

Photo of brown pelican chicks courtesy of Dennis Ancinec

In previous years these birds were nearly exterminated as a consequence of pesticides, which killed the pelicans' food and also weakened their egg shells.  Pelicans were also killed in the mistaken belief that they ate fish used for human consumption, but the fish eaten by pelicans are rarely  those species used for human food.  After DDT and other pesticides became more strictly regulated, the birds began to recover. 

Special anatomical, physiological
or behavioral adaptations:

Pelicans have large bills with a flexible lower pouch that functions both as a fishing net and a as a temperature regulation surface.  For young pelicans, the parent's pouch may also serve as a food dish. A pelican will soar above the water, flying at a height of about 7 feet  to spy out its meal, then bank steeply out of a climbing turn and plunge towards the water, netting the fish in the pouch of its bill.   The pelican's bill is not used to store food, although it is about three times the size of its stomach, but to drain the water from its catch. Once the water is drained from the pouch, the fish is swallowed and stored in the esophagus.  Special air sacs under the skin on the front of its body protect the pelican from the impact of the  dozens of dives it makes each day. Because of this air layer, the bird also rides very high in the water.  Brown pelicans may also fish while floating on the water.  A lot of the times pelicans, will fly, roost and fish together as a group, forming a V- shape in the water. 

Personal Observations on the Brown Pelicans at the Fort Worth Zoo:

Brown pelicans are such beautiful birds that when you see them, you just want to have one as your own.. Seeing this beautiful bird disappearing from this planet is very unspeakable. I think we have an obligation to protect them from declining.  Pelicans seem to be peaceful birds and very friendly. They have a lot of patience--  more than any other birds I ever seen or looked at. They behave in a very interesting manner. Even though the two brown pelicans at the zoo like to be around themselves, they are tolerant of the white pelicans and other birds in the exhibit as well.

The Brown pelicans seems to spent most of their times resting, but some times they play around among themselves! They are very friendly to each other, they treat each individual with respect, and kindness. They are birds that anyone would like to watch. This popular huge bird has clown of personality, doing just about anything for a fish.When the pelicans eat their meal they seem to enjoy it, just as other animals do. 

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Page author:StephenW. Bichiok
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