Bird of the Month- February is the Brown Pelican

Once on the Endangered Species list, this species is one of the many that has recovered because of the protections enforced by the Endangered Species Act. This species is large and full of character, often more than happy to pose for beach visitors, especially at the Huntington Beach Pier.

February’s bird of the month is the Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis)!!!!

Brown pelicans (51″ long; 79″ wing span; 8.2 lbs) have a distinct and colorful bill and neck with striking light blue eyes as adults.  On the Pacific coast the body and wings are gray-brown contrasting with the white neck and yellow on the head.  During the breeding season, the back and sides of the neck turn a dark brown and their pouch and tip of the bill turns deep red.  Juveniles are all brown with brown eyes.  The only pelican to plunge dive in North America, unlike their cousins the American white pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos), they use the force of the dive to stun the fish before scooping them up in their bills.  To accomplish this feat without injury, they tuck their heads in and twist to the left as it plunges bill first into the water (sometimes from as high as 60ft!).  Air sacs in their bodies help cushion the force of the blow as they hit the water.  These birds fly in  squadrons right above the water and waves, often gliding up and down in time to the motion of the waves.  Rather hypnotic for the viewer.

The subspecies, the California Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis californicus) loves to hang out and dive near the wooden walk bridge from the South parking lot (directly off of PCH).  They are colonial nesters on islands off our coast, so they do not nest at Bolsa Chica.  Nothing is more breathtaking than the sight of a group of pelicans flying low over the still water with the fog layer still thick like ghosts sailing by in the silent morning air.

In 1970, the Brown Pelican was officially listed on the Federal Endangered Species act, because their population had plummeted since the late 50s.  This species was also listed on the California State Endangered list in 1971.  Pesticides, namely DDT and endrin, killed the pelicans directly and/or weakened the shells of their eggs that the weight of the bird crushed the eggs.  With ban on DDT in 1972 and decrease usage of endrin, the Brown Pelican population started to recover.  In 2009, this species were officially delisted!  However, these birds are still at risk from oil spills, and discarded fishing lines and hooks.  They are on Audubon’s list of Climate Endangered species, and a big concern is how they will fare if their prey fish are negatively impacted by Climate Change.

More about the Endangered Species Act and its importance:

Brown Pelicans: A Test Case for The U.S. Endangered Species Act by Ted Williams on YaleEnivronment360

(published Jan.7th, 2019) Boardman: Endangered Species Act More Important Than Ever (from retired BCLT Board member and former Huntington Beach Mayor)

To learn more about the Brown Pelican visit The Cornell Lab of Ornithology or Audubon Guide to North American Birds

Learn more about the Migratory Bird Treaty Act: The Migratory Bird Treaty Act, Explained

New to birding? Check out this beginner’s guide to birding!

Photo: Robin Hoyland

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.