Cabrillo Marine Aquarium

Brown Pelican

Pelecanus occidentalis


Fun Facts

    The brown pelican is the smallest of all pelicans and is the only one that plunges from the air into the water to catch its food.

    The huge pouch on the pelican bill can hold about 3 gallons of water and fish.




The brown pelican is about four feet in length and has a wingspan from six to eight feet. It has a brown and gray body with a white head and a light brown crown. Young pelicans are all brown.

The brown pelican is a plunge diver; it drops from the air with its wings partly folded and dives into the water to catch its prey by using its bill and pouch like a net. It scoops up water and fish, strains out the water from the side of its bill, then tips back its head and swallows the catch. Brown pelicans eat mostly mid-sized fishes, such as sardines and anchovies.

The Brown Pelican was listed as an endangered species in 1970 when its numbers dipped to below 10,000 individuals. Populations decreased dramatically due to birds eating fish that contained pesticides like DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane). Scientists found that DDT caused the eggshells to be too thin to the point that they broke during incubation. Populations recovered somewhat after DDT was banned in 1972; however, the range of this species has been slightly reduced. Since then, populations have been climbing and the brown pelican was removed from the endangered species list in November 2009. Current estimates place the population at 650,000 individuals.

An exhibit on the diving behavior of the brown pelican can be found at the Aquarium in the Seabirds and Pinnipeds Room.