Unique among the world's seven species of pelicans, the Brown Pelican is found along the ocean shores and on only a few inland lakes in the southwestern U.S. It is the only dark pelican, and also the only one that plunges from the air into the water to catch its food.
While the Brown Pelican is draining the water from its bill after a dive, gulls often try to steal the fish right out of its pouch. They sometimes even perch on the pelican's head or back and reach in. The pelican itself, however, is not above stealing fish from other seabirds. It also follows fishing boats and hangs around piers for handouts. The Brown Pelican frequently lowers its head onto its shoulders with the bill open, pulls its head back, and stretches the pouch over its throat and neck. The exposed neck looks like a large lump sticking up out of the pouch. Unlike most birds, which warm their eggs with the skin of their breasts, pelicans incubate their eggs with their feet. They hold the eggs under the webs that stretch from the front toes to the hind toe, essentially standing on the eggs to warm them. This peculiar incubation method made them vulnerable to the effects of the pesticide DDT. The DDT made the eggshells thin, and the incubating parents frequently cracked their eggs. The Peruvian race of the Brown Pelican, found along the Pacific Coast of South America from southern Ecuador to Chile, is sometimes considered a separate species. It is larger than the other races, has fine white streaking on the feathers of the underparts, and has a blue pouch in the breeding season. Otherwise, it looks and acts like a Brown Pelican, found in similar coastal environments and plunge-diving for food.
Found in warm coastal marine and estuarine environments. Rare inland. Breeds primarily on islands.
Fish and some marine invertebrates.
Large flat nest of sticks lined with grasses or leaves. Placed in short trees, shrubs, or on ground. Nests in colonies, often with herons and other waterbirds.
Sights prey from air and plunges into water head-first. Traps fish in extended pouch. Drains water out the sides of the bill, and then swallows the fish.
Shooting for feathers and to "protect" fishing caused declines in pelican populations in the first half of the 20th century. Pesticide poisoning, especially by DDT, caused severe declines across the range in the late 1950's and the extirpation from Louisiana ("the pelican state"). It was listed as Endangered throughout the range in 1970. The ban on DDT led to a population recovery, and it was removed from the Endangered Species list in Atlantic Coast states in 1985. Breeding numbers in most states are stable or increasing, and the total population in the United States now exceeds historical levels.
Be sure to stop by the Pelican Pond and see our Brown Pelicans on your next visit
AMERICAN WHITE PELICAN
Breeding on lakes throughout the northern Great Plains and mountain West, the American White Pelican is one of the largest birds in North America. It winters along the coasts, but breeds only inland.
BO-BO and BE-BE's STORY
The White Pelican does not dive for fish as the Brown Pelican does. Instead, it dips its head underwater to scoop up fish. Several pelicans may fish cooperatively, moving into a circle to concentrate fish, and then dipping their heads under simultaneously to catch fish.
Breeds mainly on isolated islands in freshwater lakes, forages on inland marshes, lakes, or rivers, favoring shallows. Islands used for breeding are often 30 or more miles from foraging areas. During the nonbreeding season, American White Pelicans favor shallow coastal bays, inlets, and estuaries.
The American White Pelican forages mainly on fish in shallow wetlands; crayfish, tadpoles and salamanders are also eaten. Researchers have found regurgitated fish hooks and lures in colonies, suggesting that pelicans also take game fish that have been injured or slowed by anglers.
The nest is a shallow depression with a low rim that the bird forms while it is sitting, by raking up gravel, soil, or nearby vegetation with its bill. The nest bottom consists of the same material, and vegetative insulation or lining within the nest is rare.
Nests in colonies on islands that arenít subject to regular flooding. The eggs are typically laid on bare gravel, sand, or soil with little vegetation in the immediate area. In forested regions, the American White Pelican sometimes will nest under either deciduous or coniferous trees.
The American White Pelican is a graceful flier, either singly, in flight formations, or soaring on thermals in flocks. They soar in different portions of thermals for different distances: wandering flights in lower portions of a thermal, commuting flights at middle heights, and cross-country flights in the upper reaches of thermal columns. They are skilled swimmers, but they do not plunge-dive for prey like their coastal relatives the Brown Pelican. Instead they make shallow dives from the surface of the water or just plunge their heads underwater. They often hunt for food in groups in shallow water.
American White Pelican numbers have been increasing steadily at a rate of about 3.9 percent per year from 1980 to 2003. On their nesting grounds, pelicans are very sensitive to human disturbanceópeople, boats, and low-flying planes can cause the birds to leave their nests, exposing eggs and young to excessive heat and predatory gulls. They are also shot, either illegally for trophies or in an attempt to protect fish stocks (although American White Pelicans typically do not eat commercially valuable fish). In the 1960s, when the pesticide DDT was widely used, pelicans produced thinner eggshells. Because pelicans tend to nest on islands where they are safe from mammalian predators, altered lake levels (flooding or drainage) can render their breeding habitat unsafe. According to NatureServe, populations are of particular concern in California, Idaho, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin, Wyoming, and British Columbia, Canada.
Be sure to stop by the Pelican Pond and see our American White Pelicans, "Bo-Bo and Be-Be" on your next visit.