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Wildlife Wednesday: Brown Pelican


Wildlife Wednesday: Brown Pelican

Learn about the brown pelican - and why falling sardine populations might spell trouble for this plucky bird.

Despite its hefty throat pouch and waddling gait, the brown pelican can glide through the air with grace. This bird has also managed to forge a bridge over the troubled waters of its past, having recovered from near-extinction in the 1960s.  

Habitat: along the southern coasts of the US, including the Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific.


  • The oldest recorded pelican lived to the ripe old age of 43 years old.
  • Gulls have been known to poach the pelicans’ prey. The sneaky gulls wait until a pelican is draining water from its bill before snatching the fish from its pouch. To add insult to injury, gulls sometimes perch on the pelican’s head beforehand.
  • Like the other seven species of pelican, the brown variety possesses the bulging pouch for which pelicans are well known. This pouch allows them to trap fish and drain water with ease.
  • Along with its Peruvian cousin, the brown pelican is one of only two types of pelican that plunge-dive to stun and grab fish.
  • When diving, a brown pelican rotates its body to the left while tucking its head. Not only graceful, this tactic is thought to protect organs on the right side of the bird’s neck from impact with the water.

Why they’re threatened

Like the nene goose, brown pelicans have a storied history. Their populations dipped into endangered territory thanks in part to pesticide runoff, which contaminated the fish they eat. As a result, pelicans laid eggs with shells that were too thin to support the chicks growing inside.

Things were looking up, however, after the 1972 ban of the pesticide DDT. By 2009, all brown pelican populations had been taken off the endangered species list (hurrah!).

More recently, however, sinking sardine populations along the West Coast may make it hard for the remaining brown pelicans to find food. The 2013 Northwest survey by Oregon Coast National Wildlife estimates that the number of brown pelicans has dropped to its lowest since 1999.



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