Cover Photo: © Frank Schulenburg, 2016, Flickr Photo Album, some rights reserved.

Places to See California Brown Pelicans

natural bridges circle

Natural Bridges State Beach

California brown pelicans faced critically low numbers in the 1970’s from the effects of DDT and endrin.

From the 1950’s to 1970’s, the brown pelican almost disappeared from North America due to the effects of pesticides, namely endrin and DDT. DDT weakened the strength of breeding birds’ eggshells, resulting in failed breeding attempts as parents crushed eggs while trying to incubate.

The plummeting populations resulted in the species being federally listed as endangered. The ban of DDT in 1972, as well as the decrease in use of endrin, allowed pelican numbers to recuperate. By 2009, the species had recovered enough for its endangered listing to be lifted.

On the west coast, pelican populations face declines from lack of food availability.

Today, all brown pelicans still face threats from oil spills, entanglement in fishing gear, and disruption during their breeding season.

On the west coast in particular, however, pelican populations face starvation due to a decrease in the availability of Pacific sardines and anchovies. Overfishing and unusually warm waters have caused declines in the two fish populations, which has in turn negatively impacted brown pelican populations. In 2010, emaciated pelicans were reported at California wildlife centers. Younger pelican individuals were even recorded going after murre colonies in Oregon, grabbing chicks and shaking them until they regurgitated fish for the pelicans to eat.

In response to low fish numbers, the commercial fishing of sardines was banned from April 2015 through June 2016. To help monitor the populations of brown pelicans along the west coast, citizen scientists and biologists conduct surveys to assess pelican numbers from Mexico up north to Washington.

Moss Landing Brown Pelicans

Source: © Don DeBold, 2015, Flickr Photo Album, some rights reserved.

Juvenile California brown pelicans appear brown overall, whereas adults sport more rich coloration.

Non-breeding adult pelicans have yellowish faces and white necks. The rest of their bodies are brownish gray.

During the breeding season, the necks of adult brown pelicans turn reddish-brown in color. On the west coast, breeding adults also develop a red throat. Birds in breeding plumage can be seen from December through August.

Juvenile brown pelicans are brown above and whitish below, with grayish bills.

California brown pelicans can be found resting along California’s coast.

Brown pelicans can be found foraging in shallow waters. When they’re not searching for food or breeding, they can be found resting in areas near the coast.

While in flight, birds will typically form lines. Their flight is extremely graceful, as they glide and flap in unison.

California brown pelicans feed by diving in the water.

They feed primarily on fish, diving head-first into the water from 20 – 40 feet in the air to capture their prey. Before swallowing the captured fish, pelicans empty their pouches of water. The California brown pelican and the Peruvian pelican are the only two pelican species that plunge dives for food.

Gulls, particularly Heermann’s gulls, are known to steal fish from the pouches of brown pelicans that have just returned from a dive.

California brown pelicans nest colonially on the ground.

Brown pelicans breed on the Channel Islands in Southern California from March to early August.

To breed, brown pelicans form colonies, meaning that they nest in large groups with members of the same species. Their nests are usually constructed of sticks.

They lay 3 eggs on average, which hatch after 4 weeks of incubation. Once the eggs hatch, the young are cared for by both parents.

Cool facts about California brown pelicans:

  • The largest roosting site for brown pelicans in the Bay Area is in Alameda on Breakwater Island. Breakwater Island is an L-shaped island in Alameda, built from rocks to help reduce wave action in the area.
  • Brown pelican pouches can hold up to 2.6 gallons of water.
  • Brown pelicans can live to be up to 30 years old.
  • Brown pelicans are incredibly large, with wingspans of 6.5 to 7.5 feet.
  • Brown pelicans weight 8 to 10 pounds.

Resources to learn more:

Posted by Taylor Crisologo

Taylor studied biology at Cornell University, where she worked with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology on projects ranging from breeding herring gulls off the coast of Maine to dancing lyrebirds in Australia’s Blue Mountains. When she’s not researching great places to experience Bay Area nature, you can find her birding or reading a book at home with her fiancé Dan and their two cats (Max and Penelope).

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