Wildlife of the Week!

© Andrew Lees/Five Star Whale Watching. A Brown Pelican is spotted swimming along the surface of the Salish Sea, in waters around southern Vancouver Island.

Welcome to another addition of Wildlife of the Week; we are so excited to showcase this feature to you! This species may not be one that is immediately recognized as a Salish Sea animal to some. The Brown Pelican is a coastal seabird that is occasionally seen in northern waters, such as those around Washington and Vancouver Island. They feed on similar prey as many marine mammals (e.g. Humpback Whales, Minke Whales). Have you ever seen a Brown Pelican before in the Salish Sea? What is your favourite seabird? 

To learn more about the Brown Pelican, read on below!

The Brown Pelican is a large-type bird, weighing between 2000-5000g (this is ranked as “goose-size” or larger as per Cornell). They are strong birds with robust wings and body, but have a thin neck. Their length ranges from 100-137cm, their wingspan doubling the former at 200cm! As per their name suggests, they are a dark-coloured bird with the majority of their body being brown-grey. Breeding plumage produces a reddish head, whereas regular plumage displays a yellow head and white neck (on the Pacific Coast this is a red throat, the Atlantic coast a brown or green throat). Perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of any pelican is the large bill and expandable throat used for feeding. 

Though not as commonly dispersed in northern regions as they are in southern regions, the Brown Pelican can be spotted on Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf Coasts of North America. Pelicans in Puget Sound and the Salish Sea are believed to be of a California subspecies. This subspecies nests in the Gulf of California, the coast of Baja California and southern California. The Brown Pelican typically breeds in warm, southern waters during the wintertime, moving north afterwards (as far as British Columbia and Nova Scotia). Breeding season locations (on the Atlantic Coast) range from North California to Venezuela. On the Pacific Coast, this corresponds from Southern California to Chile. 

The Brown Pelican fishes for its meals, and is the only species of pelican to exhibit a unique diving behaviour called “plunging”. The bird dives directly from the sky (from heights of up to 60’) into the water, at speed, with its wings partially extended. Fish become stunned at the impact and with an open mouth, the bird’s throat/pouch can expand and take in water filled with fish. The fish is quickly filtered from the water that is expelled, and is soon swallowed. Prey includes small schooling fish as well as crustaceans. It may scavenge occasionally. 

The Brown Pelican co-parent and work together; building their nests, incubating eggs (usually 3/brood, 1 brood/year) and feeding their young. Offspring leave their nests between 5-9 weeks, depending on the type of nest. Nests are built within colonies, which are either at ground, cliffs or trees such as mangroves. Offspring reach flight age typically between 9-12 months. 

The Brown Pelican attempts to build colonies away from land predators. When not hunting, the bird may spend time flying along shorelines or perching on natural or manmade structures. You might spot a Brown Pelican near sandy or rocky shores, lagoons, outcroppings or marinas. While flying, their necks in close and their wing beats are strong and drawn-out. They travel in straight or “V” formations while in a flock. 

This pelican is an important member of the ecosystem, however their populations became drastically threatened in the 20th century due to DDT pollution from human industry. With attention to cleanup and disallowment of DDT on the Pacific Coast, the Brown Pelican began to recover in the 1980’s and regained traditional ranges in Washington and northern areas. Today, the population appears to be recovering significantly. 

If you would like to test your knowledge of the Brown Pelican, try out some trivia below!

  1. True or False? The Brown Pelican might lay anywhere from 2-4 eggs in a brood. (ANS: TRUE. Although 3 seems to be a common brood number, 2 or 4 eggs may be laid). 
  2. Atlantic and Gulf Coast Brown Pelicans may be smaller than their Pacific counterparts. (ANS: TRUE). 
  3. Brown Pelicans carry fish in their mouth pouch for extended periods of time. (ANS: FALSE. They only use this pouch to sieve water from fish in a quick manner). 


Does the male or female bird select the prospective nesting site?

The male selects the nest and gathers initial materials. 

Authored By: Alexa D./ Five Star Whale Watching.

To learn more about this fantastic species, check out our References below!

“Brown Pelican”. All About Birds. The Cornell Lab. Cornell University. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Brown_Pelican/id

“Brown Pelican.” Guide to North American Birds. National Audubon Society. https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/brown-pelican

“Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis)”. NatureWorks. New Hampshire PBS. http://www.nhptv.org/natureworks/brownpelican.htm#6

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis)”. Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. https://www.eopugetsound.org/articles/brown-pelican-pelecanus-occidentalis

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