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Brown Pelican Pelicanus occidentalis occidentalis 

Brown Pelican

At a glance

Their bills can hold more than their belly can

Endemic subspecies breeds in West Indies region

The only truly marine and only predominately dark-plumaged pelican

The only pelican that plunge-dives   

Region’s resident subspecies endangered



Any fool can recognize a pelican. A second species, the White Pelican, occasionally winters along the Atlantic and Gulf coast, but this species does not typically venture out to sea. They only rarely show up during the winter in the West Indies region, and their larger size and lighter coloration should eliminate any possibility of confusion.


Appearance of both sexes alike though males are larger than females. Band recoveries suggest only 30% survive first year and fewer than 2% survive past 10 years. Maximum documented life span 43 years. Dark breast and belly. Breeding adults have chestnut colored napes and dorsal surface of necks. Sides of necks white, base of forehead black and yellow. Non-breeding adults have mostly white necks and heads.


White breast and belly, brown necks; face and head patterns of adults lacking.


Two subspecies occur in the Atlantic; the nominate form breeds in the West Indies and P. o. carolinensis breeds along the coast of North and CentralAmerica. The West Indies race is the smallest subspecies of the Brown Pelican and can be recognized by its dark undersurface. Other subspecies breeds on the Pacific coast of the Americas and the Galapagos Islands.

Likely locations

Coastal areas throughout region.

Alternative names

French: Grand gosier, Pelican burn

Spanish: Alcatraz, Pelicano café, Pelicano pardo

Dutch: Bruine pelikaan.


A temperate to tropical species that is migratory in the northern portion of its breeding range. Absent from Bermuda. P. o. carolinensis migrates into region in winter. This subspecies breeds along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts from the Carolinas south to Texas and along the Central American Coast from Mexico to Honduras. Also breeds on the Pacific coast of Honduras. Breeding individuals banded in North Carolina have been recovered in Cuba.

Endemic West Indies race resident in Bahamas, Greater and Lesser Antilles, and along the Caribbean coast of Columbia and Venezuela to Trinidad and Tobago. Wanders to the Gulf Coast of Florida, Bermuda, east coast of Mexico, and as far south as northeast Brazil.

Brown Pelican Colonies in the West Indies


At sea

Seldom ventures out of sight of land, and then usually only in relatively shallow water within 20 km of shore. Largely diurnal. Often feeds in flocks, feeds primarily by plunge diving, sometimes from heights of 20 m. Prey primarily on surface dwelling fishes. In Caribbean primary food species are dwarf herring, anchovies, and sardines. In some areas individual birds become addicted to handouts from people on fishing docks, boats, etc. Will follow fishing boats feeding on discarded by-catch, and kitchen scraps.

At the nest

Age of first breeding about 3 years. Breeding cycle takes about ½ a year, but within West Indies occurs throughout the year with different laying peaks. Coastal mangroves are the typical nesting habitat for Brown Pelicans in the West Indies. Stick platform nests are lined with grasses and leaves. Average clutch size 3 (range 2-4); eggs chalky white. Incubation 30-35 days, Young leave nest in 11-12 weeks after hatching, with young from nests on the ground remaining in crèches and continuing to be fed by parents for some time. Annual productivity averages about one young per nest.

Current Population 

P. o. carolinensis

Southeastern United States, 13,422 pairs (Clapp and Buckley 1984), islands off Central America 500+ pairs (Van Halewyn and Norton 1984)

P. o. occidentalis

West Indies ca 1,500 pairs (Collazo, et al. 2000), islands off northern South America ca 3,000+ pairs (Van Halewyn and Norton 1984). About 1/3 of the regional population nests on Venezuelan Islands.

Approximately only 1,500 nesting pairs in West Indies proper. Total of 18,000 pairs in Atlantic.

Kushlan, et al. (2002) estimate 191,600-193,700 adults (95,800-96,850 pairs) for the Americas, the higher figure can be accounted for by breeding populations in the Pacific and the fact that the number of birds in the Southeastern United States has increased considerably since the early 1980s when most surveys were conducted.

LocationColoniesLow EstimateHigh Estimate
Dominican Republic9856910
Puerto Rico10206301
US Virgin Islands7219473
British Virgin Islands4340415
St. Maarten22626
St. Bartholomew100
Antigua and Barbuda65076
St. Christopher and Nevis25766
Trinidad and Tobago3220

Conservation Status

Once listed as Endangered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service Atlantic populations of Brown Pelicans have increased considerably since the 1970s. Because of small populations and coastal development pelicans are still considered Endangered in the Bahamas and West Indies where the endemic, non-migratory subspecies remains in decline (Schreiber and Lee 2000).

Conservation Needs

Information on pelican populations outside Puerto Rico and the US Virgin islands limited to nonexistent. In many areas fair to modest numbers of pelicans are reported but most of these are probably winter visitors from the continental population. Reports of colony sizes from the coastal populations in Central and South America are not recent, and current colony sizes may be a fraction of that in earlier reports.

Basic information on demography and health of populations (other than those in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands) needed.

While Brown Pelicans are extremely susceptible to entanglement in fishing gear, they rarely forage more than a few miles from the coast and thereby are not likely to be encountered by pelagic fishery operations. They are, however, frequently entangled in derelict coastal fishing gear. In the mid part of the last century Brown Pelican populations were severely depleted, today they not only have the United States Atlantic and Gulf ones returned, but breeding colonies have expanded in size, numbers, and northward from se North Carolina to Maryland. While this increase is generally and correctly attributed to the removal of DDT from the environment, the population surge also occurred at a time when there were major changes in coastal herring fisheries.

Most information comes from the intensely studies North American populations, few studies conducted on nominate subspecies. Analysis of current levels of pesticides and other contaminants in pelican tissues in West Indies region needed as they are a possible reason for the lack of local recovery of this species. However, the West Indies population was not as severely impacted by DDT as continental populations, and studies of pesticide contamination conducted in Puerto Rico did not show this to be a factor. Nonetheless, the population there continues to decline. 

Kleptoparasitism from expanding Laughing Gull populations may be problem as the gulls are very persistent stealing fish as foraging pelicans surface and empty the water from their pouches.

Human disturbance and habitat degradation of nesting and roosting habitat is currently the major local concern. Alterations of wetlands and coastlines may affect feeding ability. All colonies need protection from human disturbance and removal of exotic predators and grazing mammals as warranted. Oil spills should be monitored for mortality and for contamination of eggs by brooding adults. Use of organochlorines and other contaminates should be banned by nations sharing the region.

Portions of recovery plans prepared for Brown Pelicans in Puerto Rico in the 1980’s would be useful for other colonies in West Indies.


Selected References:

Clapp, R. B. and P. A. Buckley. 1984. Status and conservation of seabirds in the southeastern United States, Pp. 135-155. in J. P. Croxall, P. G. Evans and R. W. Schreiber (eds). Status and Conservation of the World's Seabirds. ICBP Tech. Publ., No. 2. 778 p.

Collazo, J. A., T. A. Agrdy, E. E. Klaas, J. E. Saliva, and J. Pierce. 1995. Population biology and status of the Brown Pelican in Pueto Rico and the U. S. Virgin Islands. Colonian Waterbirds 21: 61-65.

Collazo, J., J. E. Saliva, and Judy Pierce. (2000). Conservation of the Brown Pelican in the West Indies. Pp. 39-45. in E. A. Schreiber and D. S. Lee (eds.) Status and Conservation of West Indian Seabirds. Society of Caribbean Ornithology, Special Publication Number 1.225 pp.

Kushlan, J. A. 2002. Waterbird Conservation for the Americas: the North American Waterbird Conservation Plan, Version 1. Waterbird Conservation for the Americas, Washington, DC, USA., 78 pp.

Schreiber, E. A. and D. S. Lee (eds.) Status and Conservation of West Indian Seabirds. Society of Caribbean Ornithology, Special Publication Number 1.225 pp.

Shields, M. 2002. Brown Pelican (Pelcanus occidentalis). In The Birds of North America, No. 609. (A. Poole and F. Gill, ed.). The Birds of North America, Inc. Philadelphia, PA.

Van Halewyn, R. and R. Norton. 1984.The status and conservation of seabirds in the Caribbean. Pp. 169-222. in J. P. Croxall, P. G. Evans and R. W. Schreiber (eds). Status and Conservation of the World's Seabirds. ICBP Tech. Publ., No. 2. 778 p.
West Indian Breeding Seabird Atlas by Will Mackin and David Lee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on work at www.wicbirds.net. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at www.wicbirds.net.

Suggested Citation: Lee, D. S., W. A. Mackin. 2009. Brown Pelican. West Indian Breeding Seabird Atlas <http://www.wicbirds.net/brpe.html>. Last Updated: _____. Date accessed: ______.

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