Brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) can be found on both coasts of the Americas and are quite common along the coast of California, but it is a very unique pelican and its survival was at one time threatened.


A close-up photo of California Brown Pelican in flight

Frank Schulenburg CC BY-SA 4.0

While it’s a large bird, the brown pelican is the smallest of the eight species of pelican, and one of only three found in the Western Hemisphere.  It’s also one of only two pelican species that feeds by diving into the water—a spectacular sight to see as it power-dives, bill-first, submerging underwater for a few moments before surfacing and swallowing its catch.  Amazingly, they can spot a fish up to 60-70 feet above the surface of the water, and that height makes for some high diving and big splash-down.

Brown pelicans are also social and gregarious birds, living in flocks of both sexes and nesting in colonies on offshore islands.  They are extraordinarily buoyant in the water as well as beautifully graceful in flight, flying in single file or “V” formation often low over the surface of the water.

Watching the skillful performance of brown pelicans is some of the best entertainment on the beach!


The brown pelican is protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.  In the early 1970’s, scientists discovered pesticides threatened the brown pelican by causing its eggshells to be too thin to support an embryo, which led to its listing under the Endangered Species Act, a ban on the use of the pesticide DDT in the United States, and curtailed, controlled the use of toxic insecticide.  As a result of those protective government actions and other conservation efforts, the brown pelican made an eventual recovery.  In a 2008 US Fish & Wildlife report, the brown pelican population in southern California was estimated at more than 11,000 breeding pairs, and it was officially removed from the endangered and threatened species list in 2009.

It’s a happy story of a great recovery and an example of how wildlife conservation efforts can help save endangered species, but brown pelicans still need some protection.  There’s concern they are highly susceptible to climate change and destructive human activity, and the only breeding colonies in the western US are located within Channel Islands National Park on the West Anacapa and Santa Barbara islands.  Consequently, preservation of this vital habitat along with continued monitoring are critical to the health and survival of the California Brown Pelican.

The Brown Pelican Survey project is a biannual citizen science-based survey organized and initiated in 2016 with the joint efforts of the US Fish & Wildlife Service, Cornell Lab of Ornithology (eBird), state agencies, Conservacion de Islas and the National Audubon Society in order to better understand the abundance and distribution of Brown Pelicans in California, Oregon, and Washington and track shifts in population.  To see the May and October 2016 survey results, and for information on how you can participate in the survey, click/tap ⇒ HERE  A total of 1,976 brown pelicans were counted across 18 sites along the Oregon coast in the fall of 2017 (reported by the Audubon Society of Portland ⇒ The Oregon Fall 2017 Survey Results)

It's a happy day when you meet up with a California Brown Pelican on a beach in Malibu, California

California Brown Pelican, Big Rock Beach, Malibu CA


It’s a happy day when a big, beautiful California Brown Pelican
comes along during a walk on the beach.






References/Information Sources:

California Brown Pelican, Channel Islands National Park
Brown Pelican, National Audubon Society Field Guide
All About Birds – Brown Pelican Life History, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 “makes it illegal for anyone to take, possess, import, export, transport, sell, purchase, barter, or offer for sale, purchase, or barter, any migratory bird, or the parts, nests, or eggs of such a bird except under the terms of a valid permit issued pursuant to US federal regulations”.  The US Fish & Wildlife Service has statutory authority and responsibility to enforce the Act.


If you’d like to see and learn more about the birds of the world,
you’ll find helpful info and links to resources as well as brilliant
photos of birds here ⇒ Bird ID Challenge





Audubon's The Birds of America includes an illustration of the Brown Pelican

Brown Pelican, Audubon’s “The Birds of America” Plate 251


This image of the Brown Pelican (plate 251) is taken from The Birds of America by John James Audubon courtesy of the National Audubon Society, John James Audubon Center and Montgomery County Audubon Collection.  The full series of Audubon’s illustrations of birds is available for viewing and downloading free of charge.






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Feature photo of Brown Pelicans in flight at Big Rock Beach, Malibu, California is courtesy of Zeester Media LLC, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

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Posted by Zola Zeester

Zola is a vagabond playmaker, the On2In2™ recreation guru and primary source of inspiration for this article. Currently resides at Zeester Media HQ.


  1. Oh gosh — a beautiful, long line of brown pelicans just flew by me while sitting on Singer Island, FL balcony. Great to see, but too fast for me to get a photo. The Brown Pelican was delisted from endangered ESA and Florida list in 2017 as the species has recovered from the severe decline that started in 60’s & 70’s, but still part of Florida’s Imperiled Species Management Plan.

    1. What a lucky day when you see brown pelicans in flight. Even more amazing to see them diving into the water for a fish! They are so graceful and powerful.

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