About This Species
The brown pelican has an oversized bill and a stocky body, but man, can it fly. This icon of the coasts glides effortlessly just above the surf, taking acrobatic dives from as high as 60 feet when hunting. It hits the water and dives, scooping water—and hopefully a fish—into its bill. (Though, contrary to popular belief, the pelicans don't actually store extra food in there).
Brown pelicans are often seen in large groups. They live year-round in estuaries and along the coastal shores of the southern United States, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. In the warm months, young pelicans often head north, but can run into trouble if there are storms or food supplies grow irregular as the season progresses.
Brown pelicans have rebounded after their population was nearly decimated by plume hunting in the early 1900s, and then by DDT and other biocides. The pelicans were declared endangered in 1970, but thanks to the banning of DDT, they rebounded and were removed from the endangered species list in 2009. Environmentalists cheered, but the celebrations didn't last.
Though the brown pelican population numbers are strong, there have been troubling signals. The same year they were removed from the endangered species list, hundreds of brown pelicans were found dead or ill as they migrated for the winter in the Channel Islands off California's coast and Baja California. Experts believed the cause was climate change. Because of atypically warm weather, the birds had stayed in Oregon and Washington two months longer than usual before starting their migration, and ended up flying straight into a mid-December cold front.
A few years later, an escalating population crash among sardines dealt the birds another hit. Sardines are the most important food source for brown pelicans in California, and when the population bottomed out (due to El Niño and possibly due to climate change) the birds experienced unprecedented nesting failures and starved to death by the thousands.
By 2080, the brown pelican is projected to lose 54 percent of its current winter range, according to Audubon's climate model. But it's not all bad news for the birds—there is a chance that they will also see an expansion of their range. The bird's ability to adapt to a new climate will depend on how other species fare—namely, the fish that it relies on.