Brown Pelican

Pelecanus occidentalis
Range Map

Though large, Brown Pelicans are the smallest of all pelican species. Their populations, once threatened by use of pesticides (DDT), have recovered since they banned this chemical in the early 1970s.

The Brown Pelican forages by diving from height and plunging into the shallow water where their impact stuns the prey. These birds have learned to turn their head to the left on impacting the water to protect their necks from injury.

Sailing low over the coastal waters, often in lines of a dozen or more birds, the graceful rise and fall over the waves is a beautiful sight. These formations help their effortless flight by reducing the drag for the trailing birds. It is no accident that these formations synchronize to the waves. As the wind passes over the waves, it generates lift, allowing the birds to remain aloft with little or no wing beats.

Science recognises five subspecies of Brown Pelican:

  • P. o. californicus lives in western North America.
  • P. o. carolinensis lives in eastern North America.
  • P. o. occidentalis lives in the Caribbean.
  • P. o. murphyi lives in Colombia and Equador.
  • P. o. urinator lives on the Galapagos Islands.

When I visited Galveston (Texas) in March 2021, I met an Audubon Game Warden who generously offered me a boat tour of the islands in the bay. He explained that when the Brown Pelican population was devastated by pesticides, the eastern birds (P. o. carolinensis) were more affected than the western population (P. o. californicus). In an effort to fortify the eastern population, birds from California were introduced into the east. Now, on the Texas coast you can see some pelicans in breeding season sporting red-orange faces. Those birds are carrying the genes of those California birds.

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