Brown Pelicans

Scientific Name:   Pelecanus occidentalis


Where is the best place to view Brown Pelicans in Monterey County?

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Brown Pelicans are found in Monterey year round and can often be seen flying along the Pacific Coast in long lines close to the water with each bird closely following the flight path of the one ahead, flapping and gliding in unison. Brown Pelicans are pelagic birds with their entire food source coming from the sea.  Larger populations of Brown Pelicans inhabit the Monterey Peninsula during the summer, fall and winter (June through January) as many adult pelicans travel to nesting sites in Mexico and southern California each spring. 

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About Brown Pelicans

Brown Pelicans are found on the West Coast, ranging from Central California southward, on the East Coast from Maryland to Florida and along the entire Gulf Coast of the United States.  This large bird is actually the smallest of the eight pelican species found around the world. Brown Pelicans nearly faced extinction in the 1960s and 1970s because of pesticides and hydrocarbons that led to the thinning of its eggshells and reproductive failure in many colonies.  With the banning of DDT and other pesticides, populations have rebounded making the Brown Pelican an excellent ambassador of successful wildlife conservation. 

Brown Pelicans are marine carnivores, feeding primarily on small schooling fish such as anchovies, sardines or mackerel. In fact, it is estimated that Brown Pelicans off the southern California coast eat about one percent of the total anchovy biomass.  Brown Pelicans are the only pelican that dive for their food.  Typical dives are from 10-30 feet above the water's surface, but these hunters can dive from up to 100 feet in the air.  The deeper the prey beneath the surface of the ocean, the deeper the dive needed. When diving, Brown Pelicans turns their bodies to the left to protect the trachea and esophagus located on the right side of their neck.  Brown Pelicans also have air sacs throughout their body to help cushion their internal organs from impact. Diving pelicans hit the water's surface with enough force to stun small fish as much as six feet below the water's surface, then scoop up to three pounds of water (and fish) into their pouch.  Once at the water's surface the pelican tosses their head forward to drain water from the pouch and then tips its head backwards to position the fish head first and swallows.

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Brown Pelican Fun Facts

Brown Pelican colony off-shore at Point Lobos State Natural Preserve.

Brown Pelican colony off-shore at Point Lobos State Natural Preserve.

  • Brown Pelicans have an average 6.5 foot wingspan. 

  • Brown Pelicans can hold 3 gallons of water (and fish!) in their pouch

  • Brown Pelicans warm their eggs with their feet, essentially standing on the egg to keep it warm.
  • Brown Pelicans were delisted from the endangered species list in 2009.
  • The lifespan of a Brown Pelican in the wild is 10-25 years or more. The oldest Brown Pelican on record was 43 years old.

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Juvenile Brown Pelicans at Zmudowski State Beach, just north of Moss Landing.

Juvenile Brown Pelicans at Zmudowski State Beach, just north of Moss Landing.

Learn more about brown pelicans in our blog section.