BROWN PELICAN  Pelecanus occidentalisPelecanus occidentalis

Brown Pelicans are fish-eaters which typically feed on fish not consumed by humans, such as  menhaden, bat anchovies and, mullet.Pelicans fly low over the ocean and plunge into the water when they see a school of prey. Acting almost blindly underwater, they open their bills and fill their expandable pouches with water and hopefully, fish. When they return to the surface they tilt their bills down to drain the salt water and then up to swallow any fish in the pouch. Regurgitated, partly digested fish are fed to nestlings and flightless fledglings.

DISTRIBUTION.  More than 90% of Brown  Pelicans nesting in Texas breed on 2 islands.  In Corpus Christi Bay, where a large colony is present on Pelican Island, TBBA  atlasers found 5 confirmed breeding records in latilong block 27097-G2 and 3 confirmed in block 28086-D3.The other large colony is on Sundown Island in Matagorda Bay where  confirmed breeding was obtained in blocks 28095-G4, 29094-D7 and 29095-B1.. Other islands that have been used off and on since the1970s are Little Pelican Island,  Second Chain of Islands, Long Reef- Deadman Islands, Cedar Lakes, Dressing  Point  Island (Texas Colonial Waterbird Society 1982) and recently at Mustang Bayou and Jigsaw Island. Other confirmed TBBA records came from blocks 26097-B3, 28095-F7and 28096-B7.

Some exchange of populations between Mexico and Texas does occur (King et al. 1977, D. Blankinship, pers. comm.);  however the magnitude of this exchange is unknown.

The presence of large numbers of mature adults (as many as 300) loafing on islands during the nesting season away from the breeding sites has been reported. Future atlasers need to be aware of this behavior, possibly by young males not yet ready to breed.

The Brown Pelican occurs in coastal areas of North and South America, with a few sightings at inland lakes. The species nests from North Carolina on the Atlantic Coast south to the Gulf Coast, West Indies and northern coast of South America. On the Pacific Coast nesting occurs from central California to Chile (Am. Ornithol. Union 1998).

SEASONAL OCCURRENCE. Brown Pelicans can be found on the Texas coast throughout the year. Nesting begins in February with records of eggs from that month to as late as July (E. Payne, pers. comm.). Most pelicans are incubating by mid- to late March. By late May most eggs have hatched and white-feathered flightless young dominate the colony.

BREEDING HABITAT . Brown Pelicans in Texas typically nest in large, dense colonies on islands. Nests are usually substantial structures built on the ground or in a low shrub or cactus. Availability of nesting materials may be limiting.

The female usually lays 4 white, blood-stained eggs which both sexes incubate for about 30 days (Harrison 1979). Young birds leave the nest about 5 weeks after hatching, but they remain flightless until 1-2 months after that.

STATUS. Lockwood and Freeman (2004) consider Brown Pelican to be a common to uncommon resident along the coast.  The path to this current status was fraught with pitfalls.

Early declines in population (estimated at 5000 pelicans in Texas in the early 1900s; King et al. [1977]) were attributed to persecution by fishermen who thought  the pelicans were eating their fish. Regulations governing the killing of pelicans reduced this threat. A dramatic decline in the population of  the Brown Pelican after  World War 2 was caused by organochlorine pesticides and their metabolites. Runoff from farms and cities into streams carried these chemicals to the ocean where they moved through the food chain to fish and then pelicans. In the birds the chemicals caused thin eggshells which often broke during incubation.  The population decline resulted in the listing of the species as Endangered in 1970 and restriction of the use of these pesticides (Wilkinson et al. 1994).

Nesting success between 1967 and 1986 was approximately 1.3 fledglings/pair. This is consistent with the growth in Texas populations since the 1970s.  Increases  in population are also reflected in  wintering populations. From 1986-1995,Christmas Bird Counts showed significant numbers from Bolivar Peninsula south  to the coastal tip.  Over that 10-year span, more than 10,000 Brown Pelicans were reported in Texas in contrast to 16 in the 1960s.

In spite of this impressive recovery, some concerns remain. Breeding sites are limited, most are adjacent to shipping lanes, making colonies vulnerable to oil spills (King et al.1979). Erosion of the islands by major storms, such as those of 2005, is another danger.

Text by Lee F. Elliot  (Posted with updates 2006)

Texas Breeding Bird Atlas map

Literature cited.

American Ornithologists’ Union. 1998. Checklist of North American birds, 7th ed. Am, Ornithol. Union, Washington, DC.

Harrison, H. H. 1979. A field guide to western birds’ nests. Houghton Mifflin, Boston, MA.

King,  K.A., E. L. Flickenger and H. H. Hildebrand.. 1977. The decline of brown pelicans on the Louisiana  and Texas Gulf Coast. Southwest, Nat. 21: 417-431.

King, K. A., S. Macko, P. L.  Parker and E. Payne. 1979. Resuspension of oil: probable cause of brown pelican fatality. Bull. Environ. Contam. Toxicol. 23: 800-805.

Lockwood, M. W. and B. Freeman. 2004. The TOS handbook of Texas birds. Texas A&M University Press, College Station.

Oberholser, H. C. 1974. The bird life of Texas, Vol. 1. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Texas Colonial Waterbird Society. 1982. An atlas and Census of Texas waterbird colonies 1973-1980/ Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute, Kingsville, TX.

Wilkinson, P. M. S. A. Nesbitt and J. F. Parnell . 1994. Recent history and status of the Eastern Brown Pelican. Wildl. Soc. Bull. 22: 4200-430.

Comments are closed.