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Species spotlight: brown pelicans

By Staff | Aug 24, 2009

Special to THE BREEZE
The brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) is one of the most well known sea birds in the coastal regions of Florida. Groups of them are often seen flying in straight lines and diving into the water to catch fish. Adults have a gray-brown body with a white head, immature birds have a light brown head and body with a white belly, and all have a very long bill with a large pouch attached for feeding.
Even though brown pelicans are the smallest of the eight pelican species in the world, they are still quite large standing up to four feet tall and weighing in at six to eight pounds with a six-foot wingspan. They are found on both coasts of the Americas from Washington and Virginia south to Chile and the mouth of the Amazon River. They are unique among pelicans as they are the only species that lives strictly in coastal regions whereas the other species of pelican live primarily on inland lakes.
Although they have a reputation for being clumsy on land, brown pelicans are quite graceful in flight and have the incredible ability to dive into the water from heights of over 40 feet. Brown pelicans are the only species of pelican that dives from the air to feed on fish, amphibians, and sometimes crustaceans. The dive is performed with slightly bent wings, as they crash into the water and scoop up fish and water in their extensible pouch. When the pelicans drain their pouch of water to swallow the fish, gulls are often seen trying to steal food from the pelicans’ bills, sometimes even perching on the pelicans’ heads.
Brown pelicans typically nest in colonies in low trees, like the mangrove islands that serve as rookeries in Tarpon Bay. Nesting begins in the winter when a male selects a nesting site and tries to attract a female. The male will then bring nesting materials to the female who builds the nest, and together they incubate the eggs and feed the young. The chicks eat regurgitated food from their parents’ bills and sometimes jump right into the bill to feed. While the adults require about four pounds of fish daily, a brood of three chicks can eat up to 150 pounds of fish in the eight month period that their parents care for them.
The population of brown pelicans was severely threatened in the early 1970s by the use of pesticides. The parents warm their eggs with their feet and the pesticide DDT caused eggshells to be so thin that they cracked under the weight of the adults. After DDT was banned in 1972, the population recovered and there is an abundance of brown pelicans in Southwest Florida.
Locally, they can be viewed in The J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, and are seen diving and nesting in Tarpon Bay. You can join a Tarpon Bay Explorers naturalist for a Kayak Trail Tour or a Nature and Sea Life Cruise to learn more about the graceful Brown Pelicans.
Call the Explorers at 472-8900 or visit www.tarponbayexplorers.com for more information.