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Brown Pelicans

Brown Pelicans


  • Scientific Name: Pelecanus occidentalis
  • Status in the Wild: Common
  • Habitat: Oceans, Rivers, Swamps
  • Diet: Carnivore

It's sunset on Costa Rica's Pacific coast, and the sky is dotted with V formations of birds, their beaks pointing the way to the evening's roosting spot. These are brown pelicans, which are found in great numbers along Costa Rica's Pacific coast.

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Though impressive in size, brown pelicans are the world's smallest pelican species, measuring around four feet in length and weighing up to 12 pounds. The pelican has a brown and gray body and a white head marked with a yellow or light brown crown. Their eyes are pale yellow in color, while their legs and webbed feet are black.

Their broad wingspan, which can reach eight feet, allows for the species' unique plunging ability. This is the only pelican species to dive for their food. Brown pelicans glide close to the ocean's surface, and when prey is spotted they rise 30 feet into the air before dive-bombing into the sea. They prefer to eat fish, especially mullet, herring, menhaden, and pigfish, but are also known to feed on prawns and other crustaceans.

Brown pelicans have a very long bill and pouch to accommodate their catch of the day. In fact, the birds' pouches can hold up to three gallons of water and fresh fish – approximately twice the capacity of their stomachs. After diving for a meal, the pelicans keep the fish in their pouch while water and other unwanted matter drain away.


Brown pelicans live in warm, coastal habitats in North, Central and South America, from Canada south into Chile and northern Brazil. They are social birds, and feed, nest, roost and migrate in large groups. Brown pelicans are rarely found inland, and prefer coastal and estuarine habitats.

In Costa Rica, brown pelicans are found along the entire Pacific and Caribbean coastline, though they are much more common on the Pacific. In fact, throughout many areas of Costa Rica's Pacific, hundreds of brown pelicans can be spotted in a single day. The Isla Bolanos National Wildlife Refuge, located off the coast of Santa Rosa National Park, was established as a protected nesting site for brown pelicans.


The species typically nests on offshore islands. Brown pelican males scout out breeding sites, where the entire colony will nest. They usually build their nests on the ground, but may also choose a prime spot in trees or bushes. Their nesting season occurs during March and April, during which time females each lay one to four eggs, which both parents incubate over the next month.

Newborn chicks are capable of eating fresh fish proffered by their parents at ten days old. After a month, juveniles are capable of leaving the nest. However, if they were born in a tree or tall bush, they will not become independent until 63-88 days in age, when they are physically capable of taking their first flight. The species reaches sexual maturity around age two, and has an average lifespan of 15-20 years.

Status in the Wild:

Today, brown pelicans are globally common, but their populations dropped dramatically in the 1970's due to prevalent use of DDT pesticide. Thanks to international conservation efforts, the species rebounded, and by 2009, the world population was estimated at 650,000. Brown pelicans are no longer considered endangered and are currently listed as a species of least concern. They have few natural predators, although chicks may fall prey to hunting gulls and feral cats.

Brown Pelicans in Pictures

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