The Brown Pelican is a coastal bird that is rarely found away from the sea. The birds on the Pacific Coast nest on islands off the coasts of southern California and Mexico. After the breeding season, they move north along the coast, frequenting shallow marine areas such as bays, offshore islands, spits, breakwaters, and open sandy beaches.
While foraging, Brown Pelicans dive from 30 feet or more in the air, plunging headfirst into the water to catch fish. If successful, they throw their heads back to swallow prey. Brown Pelicans feed and roost together, and nest in colonies. Groups of Brown Pelicans may be seen flying low over the waves or in loose formation at greater heights. Brown Pelicans are generally silent after fledging.
The Brown Pelican’s diet consists almost entirely of fish such as smelt and anchovies. Brown Pelicans also eat some crustaceans and occasionally scavenge or take handouts from fishermen.
Brown Pelicans nest on the ground, on cliffs, or in low trees. The female builds the nest with material gathered by the male. The nest is either a simple scrape lined with a few twigs and feathers or a large stick nest in a tree. The female lays one brood of 2-4 eggs (usually 3) each year. Both parents incubate. The altricial young are fed semi-digested fish by both parents. Young may leave the ground nest after 5 weeks, but young in tree nests remain an additional 2 weeks. After fledging, the young gather in groups, but the parents recognize and continue to feed their own young.
Brown Pelicans experienced a large-scale population collapse in the 1950s and ’60s because of pesticide contamination. DDT released into the Pacific with agricultural runoff was concentrated in anchovies, causing eggshell thinning in birds that consumed these fish. Since the banning of DDT in 1972, Brown Pelican numbers have increased dramatically along the Pacific Coast. Now low-flying aircraft are the primary disturbance to roosting birds.