Interesting facts about the brown pelican

We’ve collected interesting facts about the brown pelican.

The American brown pelican (lat. Pelecanus occidentalis) belongs to the Pelicanidae family. It is distinguished by its special fishing technique, which is not characteristic of all other related species except the Peruvian pelican (Pelecanus thagus).

The birds look for their prey in the air and then half-fold their wings and fall down a downward trajectory, but do not dive deep into the water. Externally, they are very similar to each other and until 2007 were of the same species.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, brown pelican feathers were widely used to decorate female hats. To preserve this species and other seabirds, the first wildlife reserve in the United States was established by order of President Theodore Roosevelt off the coast of Florida on March 14, 1903.

The real threat to its existence arose during World War I. Soldiers of the American army were supplied with a large number of canned sardines. When this fish in the sea became scarce, fishermen began to kill brown pelicans on a massive scale, seeing them as their competitors.

Their population decreased dramatically in the 1960s, due to the massive use of DDT. The dangerous insecticide led to very thin shells in bird eggs, which pelicans often crushed with their paws. The banning of DDT and the environmental measures taken allowed for the restoration of the population. Today, its population is estimated to range from 350 to 400 thousand adults.

Distribution of brown pelicans

The habitat is located in North, Central, and South America. On the Pacific coast, brown pelican nests are located from northern California to Chile, and on the Atlantic coast, from South Carolina to Venezuela and the Caribbean islands.

Outside the breeding season, birds can migrate to Canada and Tierra del Fuego. Birds living in the Gulf of Mexico are predominantly sedentary. The direction of seasonal migrations is associated with the appearance of cold atmospheric fronts.

American brown pelicans settle on the sea coast or in mixed waters of river estuaries. Sometimes they fly deep into the USA and Brazil.

There are 5 subspecies known. The nominative subspecies are spread across the Caribbean islands and coasts of South America from Colombia and Venezuela to Trinidad and Tobago. The subspecies Pelecanus occidentalis urinator lives in Galapagos.

The behavior of brown pelicans

Brown pelicans are among the social birds that form numerous colonies. There can be up to 5-10 thousand nesting pairs in one colony. They often nest together with gulls (Laridae) herons (Ardeidae), cormorants (Phalacrocoracidae), and donkeys (Sulidae).

Representatives of this species very rarely come into conflict with each other. Individual distance between individuals and territorial demarcation is made by the rapid forward movement of the open beak. In the same way, American pelicans scare away small birds of prey.

As ground raptors approach, they rise, pull out their beaks, and wave their wings. If they still approach at close range, the pelicans fly away without delay and land on the water surface.

They like to fly low above the sea surface in small groups. During the flight, birds hold their heads on their shoulders and their beaks rest on folded necks. On long flights, the flock flies in the form of a Latin letter V, and on short distances, it lays in a row.

Feeding of brown pelicans

An American brown pelican looks out for its victim up to 20 m above the sea surface. When his beak hits the water, he sharply pulls back his wings and legs to reduce the resistance of the water environment. Air bubbles in the plumage in the abdominal region soften the impact and prevent it from completely submerging into the water, so only fish in the surface layer becomes its trophy.

When the beak is lowered into the water, the victim is between the upper and lower jaws. The beak closes instantly. By turning its head to the sides, the brown pelican is released from the excess water. As a result, only one booty remains in the throat bag.

The diet is dominated by California anchovies (Engraulis mordax), Peruvian sardines (Sardinops sagax), and Atlantic menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus). Shrimp are often eaten, much less squid and octopus.

Feeding occurs in relatively shallow areas of the sea up to 150 m deep.

Usually, brown pelicans are looking for food only in areas where there are many shoals of small fish up to 18-21 cm long. Sometimes they eat amphibians, eggs, and foreign chicks. The daily consumption rate is about 2 kg of food.

Breeding of brown pelicans

Sexual maturity comes at the age of 3-4 years. American brown pelicans form monogamous couples that last for one season and only occasionally for a longer period.

The marriage period begins in March and ends in April. At its beginning, males take up space for the future nest and wait for the females. While waiting, they write out loops with their heads that resemble a sign of infinity. The males do not leave the occupied area until they find a pair. It takes 2-4 days. The unlucky cavaliers wait for their half sometimes up to 3 weeks in a row.

The nest material is collected by the males, while the females build the nest. It is located both on the ground and in the tree crown. Construction work usually lasts 7-10 days.

After their completion, the average female lays the first white egg in 3 days. Two to three oval eggs of about 76×51 mm in size are laid at intervals of 24 to 64 hours.

The incubation lasts from 28 to 30 days.

The helmet is warmed by both spouses alternately. Eggs are heated using swimming partitions, through which a dense network of capillaries passes. Brown pelicans seem to “stand” on their eggs.

The chicks hatch naked and blind, with pink skin and weigh about 80 grams. For 4-14 days they are covered with dark fluff. Then they have layers of white, black, and grayish plumage.

 For the first week, parents feed hatched chicks with porridge, which is burped from their stomachs. Then the offspring take their fish from their parents’ beak. On about the 35th day, the chicks leave the nest and walk in its surroundings. On the wing they become at the age of 72-80 days, staying close to their parents for another 5-7 months.

Description of brown pelicans

Body length 115-138 cm. Weight 2500-4000 g. Wingspan reaches 180-200 cm. Males are 15-20% heavier than females. The length of the beak is 25-38 cm. In males, it is about 10% longer.

Young birds are mostly painted brown with a white belly. Adult plumage appears at the end of the third year of life.

In sexually mature birds the upper part of the head and neck are whitish, with a slight yellowish tint. Chest and lower sides are blackish, with separate white feathers.

Legs and paws are black. A large throat pouch holds up to 11 liters of water.

The life expectancy of American brown pelicans is about 30 years.

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