Physical Description 

  • Adult males: Large, bulky, and oddly proportioned brownish-gray bodies, with white heads and necks, pale yellow eyes with skin around them that is dull and gray. Long dark bill slightly longer than females, large expandable gular (throat pouch). They have short olive. green/gray/black legs with fully webbed toes, a wingspan of 6.5 – 7 feet, weight of 8-11 pounds, and length up to 50 inches 
  • Adult female: slightly smaller but similar in color and difficult to distinguish from male.
  • Breeding males and females: chest and head feathers become golden, eyes blue with skin around them turning pink, gray gular pouch turns bright red and back of the neck turns chestnut brown.
  • Juveniles: Grayish brown coloration with white bellies, gray bill and pouch, white head and neck, brown eyes, reaching maturity and full adult plumage from 3-5 years of age.


  • Found along all coasts of Mexico and the United States, as well as down south into Northern Peru and the mouth of the Amazon River, Tobago, and the island of Saut d’Eau in Trinidad.
  • Migration: north to Canada in summer months, south to Mexico in the fall.
  • Breeding: between Channel Islands and Gulf of California.
  • Non-breeding: British Columbia to Central Mexico.


  • Usually found in rocky, sandy, or vegetated offshore islands or offshore for feeding.
  • Nest in colonies usually on islands, coastal areas with sandy beaches, lagoons, etc..


  • About 90% of California brown pelicans nest in Mexico. The only long-term breeding colonies in the U.S.are located on the Channel Islands.
  • They are monogamous through breeding season, and breed in colonies on islands without mammal predators
  • Peak egg laying period is in March and April but can extend through late fall.
  • They nest in colonies of males and females on islands, on slopes, canyons, and high bluffs, on the ground, in native shrubs and occasionally in trees.
  • The male chooses the nesting site, courts the female with an aerial dance at the nest site with the female reciprocating his interest with a sway of her head. The male brings materials to the female who weaves them into the nest, taking over a week to build it.
  • The female lays 2-3 oval chalky white eggs with both parents sharing incubation duties with their webbed feet beginning immediately after first egg is laid, and incubating them for 28-30 days.
  • Eggs hatch in the order they were laid, with first born often out-competing siblings for food.
  • Born bald, blind, and helpless, chicks completely depend on parents for the first 3-4 weeks, and are fed by both parents who take turns leaving the nest to catch fish, stored in throat pouches, and regurgitate it to their chicks. The chicks learn to fly at about 9 weeks and leave the nest at about 12 weeks.


  • Schooling fish close to the water’s edge, including herring, mullet, anchovies, sardines, Pacific mackerel, and minnows.
  • Anchovies are 90% of diet during breeding season.
  • They occasionally eat amphibians, crustaceans and the eggs and nestlings of other birds.


  • Eggs are eaten by birds, raccoons, cats, and dogs.
  • Brown pelican chicks can be eaten by gulls, skunks, and feral cats.
  • Adult brown pelicans have few natural predators, occasionally eaten by bald eagles, sharks, or sea lions while resting on the water.

Interesting Facts 

  • Their bill can hold up to three gallons of water and fish at a time, which is about two to three times what their stomach can hold!
  • With their great eyesight, they can spot a fish from 20-60 feet up. With their heads pointed straight down and their wings pointed straight back, they dive straight downward. They fill air sacs under their skin to act as last-minute airbags and keep them from breaking any bones!
  • They can fly up to 30 mph, usually in single file or in a V formation.
  • As recently as the 1970s, the brown pelican was seriously endangered from pesticides, especially DDT, hurting their eggs. But conservationists saved them by banning those pesticides and now they are healthy and their population numbers have recovered.

Hear Brown Pelican’s colony sounds

Sources: Tammy Russell, Scripps Institution of Oceanography; Audobon Field Guide;; Monterey Bay Aquarium; MentalFloss;; Aquarium of the Pacific, National Park Service, U.S Fish & Wildlife Service

Photo: Scott F. McGee