Brown Pelican, Pelicanus occidentalis


Brown Pelican
Above and below, Brown Pelicans in breeding plumage, with the head yellow and white, and a dark brown nape. The species is found along the southeast, gulf, and Pacific coasts; Pacific adults like these have a pouch that is greenish-brown in front and red in the rear, while on eastern and Gulf birds, the pouch is greenish brown all over. These birds were photographed at the best-known spot for close views of breeding-plumage western Brown Pelicans, the cliffs of La Jolla Cove just north of San Diego. The western subspecies nests along the southern California and Mexican coast, and does not breed but is present in large numbers for most of the year on the coast of central and northern California, and in smaller numbers in my area along the shore of San Francisco Bay.


Brown Pelican
The familiar standing posture for Brown Pelicans on land.


Brown Pelican
Non-breeding plumage, above, with the nape white rather than dark brown; below, a male displaying on the breeding grounds at La Jolla Cove.


Brown Pelican


Brown Pelican
Brown Pelicans often fly just above the water surface, sometimes directly in the surf as with the non-breeding adult shown above. They are also regularly seen flying higher overhead, typically in V-shaped flocks.


Brown Pelicans
The nearest bird shown above is a juvenile, with the neck and back brown; the other two are
adults with the usual white and silver plumage, but with the bill and pouch gray rather than the
yellows, reds, and greens of breeding plumage; this their normal appearance in the "chick-feeding"
season that follows breeding.


Brown Pelican
Above, an adult landing on water, with the white nape of non-breeding plumage, and the more colorful bill and pouch that appear in late fall, between chick-feeding and next breeding season.


iBrown Pelican
Brown Pelicans catch fish by spectacular plunge-dives, often straight down from up to 20 yards above the surface, as shown above, sometimes by a low gliding approach as if landing on the water, but followed by a head-strike instead of a feet-first landing, as shown in the two images below. They are the only pelican that plunge-dive for fish; our other North American pelican species, the American White, forages by forming groups on the surface to surround and feed on schools of fish.


Brown Pelican


Brown Pelican


Brown Pelican
"A wonderful bird is the pelican / Its beak can hold more than its belly can." When a
plunge-dive results in capture, the pelican first drains the water out, then throws its head
back to swallow the prey, as shown here.