Brown Pelicans: Quite the Change in Wardrobe

Pacific brown pelican with full mating plumage, Port San Luis, California, January, 2008. Photo by “Mike” Michael L. Baird via Wikimedia Commons.
Pacific brown pelican with full mating plumage. Port San Luis, California, January, 2008. Photo: “Mike” Michael L. Baird CC BY 2.0.

If you have been to the beach along the west coast of the US lately, you will have seen a brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis). You might see them flying in large V-shaped squadrons, long chains, smaller groups, or alone. At more than 4 feet long with a wing span of more than 6.5 feet, they are the largest bird around. They look like prehistoric pterodactyls with their long beaks and big heads with crests on top.

Brown pelicans range all along the Pacific coast, from Vancouver, Canada to central Mexico, with major populations in California on the Channel Islands. If food is plentiful in Monterey Bay, you’ll see large flocks of them, sometimes 50 or more, flying overhead from mid-summer to late fall.

Brown pelicans in Santa Cruz with basic or non-mating plumage. Picture courtesy of and © Paul Babb 2013.
Brown pelicans in Santa Cruz with typical non-mating plumage. Photo: Courtesy of and © Paul Babb, 2013

In late summer, an adult pelican has a white neck and belly, a pale yellow head, brown eyes, a reddish-orange throat pouch, and a yellow-tipped bill. But brown pelicans undergo a dramatic change in coloring for mating season. Surprisingly, it happens to females — not just the males in this species get to look pretty.

As the breeding season approaches, in late fall, the end of the bill turns reddish and most of the throat pouch brightens to a poppy red, with a white stripe down the neck. The irises of their eyes even change from a yellowish white to light blue.

Colors start to fade during the onset of incubation, in March, and the yellow feathers on the head are replaced with white feathers.

Kamikaze Divers

The amazing pelican dive team. November 26, 2010. Picture by Anita Ritenour via Flickr.
The amazing pelican dive team. November 26, 2010. Photo: Anita Ritenour CC BY 2.0.

Brown pelicans do a spectacular crash dive to get their food, usually diving from 10 to 30 feet or more above the water. When a pelican sees food below, it stops flying, hovers a moment, tips tail-up, and makes the commitment. Tucking its wings close to its body, beak pointing straight down, it slices into the water with a big splash. A moment later, it surfaces and tilts its head forward to empty up to 2 gallons of water from its pouch. Then, it tilts its head back and swallows the catch, which is usually anchovies, sardines, or mackerel.

To avoid crushing their internal organs from the force, just before they hit the water, they tuck their heads in and turn their bodies to the left to protect their throats from the impact. If you dissected one, you’d see the chest filled with subcutaneous air sacs that resemble bubble wrap. Theses structures are built-in shock absorbers that protect the keel bone from being broken. It doesn’t always work, and a misjudged dive can seriously injure or kill.

Standing on Eggshells

In California, brown pelicans breed in colonies, mostly on two isolated islands in the Channel Island group.

They incubate their eggs by standing on them and warming them with the webbing of their feet. This requires strong eggs! In the ’60s and ’70s, they were almost extinct due to exposure to pesticides (mostly DDT), which weakened the eggshells and made them break easily. Pelican populations plummeted to the point that they (and several other bird species) were put on the Endangered Species List in 1970. Thanks to the banning of DDT and other pesticides, the pelicans rebounded and were removed from protected status in 2009.

Take the Self-Guided Mobile Tour

This piece is part of the Marine Life Guide. Download the free app with many tours of the Santa Cruz area and beyond.


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  1. Sources Used

      • All About Birds. Cornell Lab of Ornithology website.
      • Birds: Channel Islands National Park. US National Park Service website.
      • Personal communication with Patrick Wilkinson, a volunteer and docent for Seymour Marine Discovery Center at Long Marine Lab, and with Bay Net, a volunteer organization under the auspices of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

About The Author

I really enjoy field trips. I love being in a cool place and having someone tell me about it. The problem is, you can’t always find a professor or park ranger-type to tell you all they know about the local rocks, plants, and history. So I decided to combine my love of things natural with mobile technology.

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