Wildlife - Species

Eastern Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis)


Eastern brown pelicans are common throughout coastal South Carolina. They are one of the largest birds found on the east coast of the United States and the only pelicans in the world that are not white. The first eastern brown pelican was described in 1789 and came from Charleston Harbor. Adult males and females are similar in appearance and are easily identified by the characteristic long bill with an underlying gular (throat) pouch. The bird's head is white in front and dark brown behind, extending down the neck and back. During the breeding season, the white plumage turns a vibrant yellowish-gold color. Silver-gray feathers cover the rest of the pelican's body. Juveniles have grayish-brown feathers above and whitish plumage below. Pelicans measure approximately 120 cm (48 in) in length, with a wingspan reaching almost 200 cm (78 in). They can weigh up to 3.6 kg (8 lbs) and live up to 30 years in the wild.

Preferred Habitat and Biology

This large marine bird formerly nested along coastal areas from Mexico to North Carolina. Currently it only nests in North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana. In the ACE Basin, pelicans nest on Deveaux Bank Heritage Preserve in the mouth of the North Edisto River.

Eastern brown pelicans reach sexual maturity at 3 years of age and are monogamous, having only one breeding partner throughout the spring and summer breeding season. Nests are constructed on trees, such as mangroves, or in shallow depressions on the ground, on islands with sufficient high ground to avoid tidal flooding and far enough from land to escape mammalian predators such as raccoons. Pelicans nest in colonies and typically hatch 2 to 3 eggs after an incubation period of 30 days. Both parents take turns incubating the eggs and feeding their chicks. After about 9 weeks, young pelicans are ready to leave the nest; they fledge at 71 to 88 days. Although its eyes are not adapted for underwater vision, a pelican dives head first into the water in search of food. Upon surfacing, the bird tilts its bill downwards to drain out water and then up to swallow its catch. The pelican's diet consists exclusively of fish.

Species Significance

The eastern brown pelican was listed as an endangered species in 1970, when their population plummeted to less than 100. Widespread use of pesticides such as DDT caused thinning of eggshells, which subsequently broke during incubation. The United States ban on DDT in 1972 and similar pesticides spurred the pelican's recovery to much of its former range. The implementation of the Brown Pelican Recovery Plan of 1979 also contributed to the restoration of brown pelican populations. This species is no longer considered endangered and has been de-listed.


Bull, J. L. and J. Farrand, Jr. 1995. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds. Eastern Region. The Audubon Society field guide series. Alfred A. Knopf Inc., New York, NY.

Ehrlich, P. R., D. S. Dobkin, and D. Wheye. 1988. The birder's handbook: A field guide to the natural history of North American birds, including all species that regularly breed north of Mexico. Simon & Schuster, New York, NY.

National Geographic Society. 1987. Field guide to the birds of North America. Second edition. National Geographic Society, Washington, DC.

Sprunt, A., Jr. and E. B. Chamberlain. 1970. South Carolina bird life. University of South Carolina Press, Columbia, SC.