BROWN PELICAN – (Pelecanus occidentalis)
DESCRIPTION: The Brown Pelican is the smallest of its species, at approximately 130 cm (52 in.) long including the bill, and a wingspan of around 2 meters (6.6 feet), which is still a good size. The plumage is more grey than brown, the head is yellow and the neck white. The breeding male has a yellow head and the neck turns black. The bill, as in all pelicans, is quite long at some 30 cm (12 in.), and has a pouch to hold food prey. This pouch can hold three times as much as the stomach. The bill is mostly grey and the legs and feet are black.
NAME: The English name ‘Pelican’ – and the Latin genus name ‘Pelecanus’ are derived from ancient Greek, and meant ‘axe’. This word was used for the woodpecker bill, and by extension, for other species with a long bill. The Latin species name ‘occidentalis’ refers to the bird’ geographical region, ‘western’, or a New World species.
HABITAT: Brown pelicans can be found in various bodies of shallow saltwater – mangroves, marshes, estuaries, beaches or bays.
DIET: Mostly fish. Using its excellent eyesight, the brown pelican can spot fish from the air. It will then dive headfirst and scoop the fish in its pouch, draining water from it while on the surface. However, while doing this other birds such as gulls or terns will help themselves right from the pouch! On the other hand, the brown pelican too is attracted to easy food (see photo below). Other sources of food are amphibians, crustaceans, and bird eggs and chicks.
NESTING: The brown pelican is a social bird that breeds in colonies. Nests are build near the ground in a sheltered location, preferably on an island to minimize predation. Nesting materials include leaves, sticks, even pebbles, lined with feathers and rimmed with soil.
ON PEI: The brown pelican does not breed on PEI and there have only been a few ‘accidental’ observations on the island, such as when those birds are blown off course by tropical storms.
DISTRIBUTION: There is considerable overlap between the breeding and non-breeding ranges of the brown pelican. Those are the coasts of most of the USA (except Alaska), Mexico, the Caribbean, and northern South America. There is very little migration from breeding (summer sites) to non-breeding (winter) sites.
CONSERVATION: For some time this pelican species was endangered due to pesticides such as DDT, but has made a full recovery following the DDT ban. A refuge has been established on a Florida island solely for the protection of the brown pelican: Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge.
OTHER: Contrary to popular belief, a pelican pouch is not used for transporting anything but prey. The brown pelican is the national bird of several Caribbean Islands including the Turks and Caicos Islands. It is also the state bird of Louisiana, which is sometimes called the ‘Pelican State’. The brown pelican is referred to in some films, notably ‘The Pelican Brief’.