Brown Pelicans

by Clark Tate

If someday, while lounging on a seaside jetty, you’re surprised by a feathered torpedo slamming into the water nearby, don’t panic. It’s probably just a brown pelican “plunge-diving” for lunch. These expert fishers, which suffered a dire population crisis brought about by DDT in the 1970s, have an unforgettable way of feeding.

Spotting fish from 10, 30, even 100 feet in the air, a pelican will angle its head left (to protect the trachea and esophagus) and plummet, protected from harm by internal air sacs. Hitting the water with frightening percussion, it stuns small fish like menhaden, mullet, and anchovies swimming as far as 6 feet beneath the surface. Pelicans scoop up the fish into the largest throat pouch of any bird in the world (capacity: 2.5 gallons). Impertinent seagulls often steal the fish, even perching on the pelicans’ heads to do so. (Scroll down to see a pretty incredible slo-mo video of brown pelicans plunge-diving.)

Brown pelicans grow to 4.5 feet, weigh up to 11 pounds and can live to a wizened 40 years of age. Dapper birds, adults are grayish brown with a pale yellow head and white neck that darkens to red-brown during breeding season. Juveniles have a dark head and neck. Pelicans surf updrafts easily on 6.5-foot wings. Flocks soar in a V-formation or in a long line, with one bird after the other beating its wings and rising slightly for a solo performance before gliding back into file.

Social shore birds, brown pelicans are rarely seen inland and live year-round along the east and west coasts of the Americas. When the West Coast population isn’t feeding or breeding, the pelicans hang around docks, jetties, beaches, estuaries, or offshore islands from southern Ecuador to British Colombia. They enjoy rocky, sandy and vegetated locations alike.

West Coast males choose and defend a nest site in colonies on rocky offshore islands from southern California south. Channel Islands Anacapa and Santa Barbara are the only breeding sites in the western U.S.; the vast majority—90 percent—of brown pelican hanky-panky occurs in Mexico. Males sway their heads seductively, showing off a throat pouch that turns bright red in breeding season, to attract a mate. The pair then builds a large nest, produces 2 to 3 eggs, and proudly stands on them.

This method of child rearing was disastrous in the days of DDT. The population declined sharply in the ’60s and ’70s as chemically weakened shells shattered. Only one chick survived on West Anacapa in 1970, the year the species made the endangered species list. When DDT was banned in 1972, the birds staged a serious comeback. Average nests counts on Anacapa Island grew from 900 in the ’70s and early ’80s to 4,600. In 1980, nesting spread to Santa Barbara Island, which now averages 1,500 mating pairs every year. Brown pelicans were delisted in 2009, thanks to their spectacular recovery—a very happy species success story.

And now, the promised video: