Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis)

This article was originally published by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife as part of its annual report Threatened and Endangered Wildlife in Washington.

Brown pelican. Photo by D. Stinson.
Brown pelican. Photo by D. Stinson.


State Status: Endangered, 1980
Federal Status: Species of concern
Recovery Plans: None

Brown pelicans seen in Washington belong to the California subspecies, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus. They nest on islands in the Gulf of California and along the coast of Baja California to the Channel Islands National Park in southern California. In California, they feed primarily on Pacific mackerel, Pacific sardines, and northern anchovies (USFWS 2009).

Brown pelicans are sensitive to bioaccumulation of the pesticide DDT which causes reproductive failure by altering calcium metabolism and thinning eggshells.  California brown pelicans declined drastically in the 20th century as a result of DDT contamination, particularly off the coast of Los Angeles where a manufacturing plant discharged DDT residues into the sewage system for many years (Shields 2002). Pollution and perhaps persecution by fishermen adversely affected pelicans.  By the 1960s, even single birds in Washington were noteworthy (Wahl 2005).  The brown pelican was listed as endangered by the USFWS under the Endangered Species Act in 1970.

Location of East Sand Island.

The brown pelican recovered after the banning of most uses of DDT and the cleanup of DDT and derivatives from sediments off the California coast. The species began to reoccupy the Washington part of its non-breeding range in the early 1980s (Wahl and Tweit 2000).  Since 1985, the California subspecies has exceeded a recovery objective of at least 3,000 breeding pairs during all but 2 years (1990, 1992), and has exceeded 6,000 pairs for 10 of the last 15 years. The brown pelican was removed from the federal Endangered Species List in 2009 (USFWS 2009).

Brown pelicans now occur in substantial numbers (7,000–10,000) in Washington’s outer coastal waters, mainly from late April through October (Wahl 2005). Small numbers occur in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound.  East Sand Island in the Columbia River estuary is the largest known post-breeding nighttime roost site for California brown pelicans (Figure 2). In 2012, weekly counts of brown pelicans roosting on East Sand Island peaked at 10,570 on 22 July; counts peaked at about 14,224 in 2011, 11,500 in 2010, and over 16,000 in 2009, the highest count ever recorded for the island ( Brown pelicans feed primarily on schooling marine forage fishes which are abundant near East Sand Island (Emmett et al. 2006). The absence of salmon PIT tags in a sample plot suggests that brown pelicans roosting on East Sand Island are not feeding on salmon smolts (Roby and Collis 2012).

The species may be proposed for de-listing in Washington in 2013.   Brown pelicans are protected from ‘take’ by federal law (Migratory Bird Treaty Act), and would remain protected by state law (as ‘protected wildlife’) if delisted.

Partners and cooperators: U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Literature Cited

Emmet, R.L., G.K. Krutzikowski, and P.J. Bently. 2006. Abundance and distribution of pelagic piscivorous fishes in the Columbia River plume during spring/early summer 1998–2003: Relationship to oceanographic conditions, forage fishes, and juvenile salmonids. Progress in Oceanography 68:1-26.

Roby, D. and K. Collis. 2012. Research, Monitoring, and Evaluation of Avian Predation on Salmonid Smolts in the Lower and Mid-Columbia River. 2011 Annual Report, prepared for Bonneville Power Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. 171 pp. Available at:  Info/publications-reports/default.aspx

Shields, M. 2002. Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis). In The Birds of North America, No. 609 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and The American Ornithologists’ Union, Washington D.C.

USFWS. 2009. Removal of the Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) from the federal list of endangered and threatened wildlife: Final Rule. Federal Register 74(220): 59444-59472 (November 17, 2009).

Wahl, T. R. 2005. Brown Pelican. Pages 96-97 in T. R. Wahl, B. Tweit, and S. G. Mlodinow, eds. Birds of Washington: status and distribution. Oregon State University Press, Corvallis. 436 pp.

Wahl, T. R., and B. Tweit. 2000. Seabird abundances off Washington, 1972-1998. Western Birds 31(2):69-88.

Source: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. 2013. Threatened and Endangered Wildlife in Washington: 2012 Annual Report. Listing and Recovery Section, Wildlife Program, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Olympia. 251 pp.

About the Author: 
Species accounts were compiled by Derek Stinson, Gary Wiles, Gerald Hayes, Jeff Lewis, Lisa Hallock, Steve Desimone, and Joe Buchanan. Many other individuals took time from busy schedules to review species accounts or provide information or documents for this report, including WDFW district and assistant district wildlife biologists, research scientists, and people from other agencies. They include Harriet Allen, David Anderson, Hannah Anderson, Keith Aubry, Lynne Barre, Dana Base, Penny Becker, Scott Becker, Gary Bell, Gretchen Blatz, Joe Buchanan, Steve Desimone, Joe Engler, Greg Falxa, Howard Ferguson, Rich Finger, Scott Fitkin, John Fleckenstein, Eric Gardner, Joe Gaydos, Dawn Gedenberg, Gary Ivey, Lisa Hallock, Molly Hallock, Jeff Heinlen, Eric Holman, Steve Jeffries, Mary Linders, Mike Livingston, Russ Mullins, Travis Nelson, Heidi Newsome, Don Noviello, Brent Norberg, Gail Olson, Ann Potter, Scott Pearson, Leslie Robb, Elizabeth Rodrick, Ella Rowan, Lori Salzer, Chris Sato, Tammy Schmidt, Larry Schwitters, Michelle Tirhi, Laura Todd, Matt Vander Haegen, Jim Watson, and Kristin Wilkinson. Joe Higbee and Rod Gilbert allowed use of many photographs. David Speiser kindly allowed the use of his yellow-billed cuckoo photo.