Of the two species of Pelican you can find in North America, both can be spotted in California. These are the American White Pelican and Brown Pelican, and they can both be spotted here all year.
Pelicans are one of the world’s largest birds and one of the most recognizable with their huge bills, throat pouch, and feet. Although they are very large, they are very light, and they have air pockets in their skeleton and skin, which help them to float, and their long wings help them to soar when flying.
There are eight species of pelicans in the world, and two of them live in North America. These are the American White Pelican and Brown Pelicans.
During the breeding season, pelicans’ facial skin and their throats and bills become brighter colored and some grow extra parts on their bills.
Pelicans breed in colonies of up to 50,000 birds, and depending on the species, and they may either be ground-nesting or tree nesting. After about 25 days in the nest, the young will gather in ‘creches’ of up to 100 young birds, and amazingly the parents will recognize their own chick and only feed them.
Although pelicans prey on other animals, they are not considered birds of prey as these birds only include raptors. Pelicans mainly eat fish, but they will also eat crabs, frogs, snakes, mammals, birds, and insects.
They use their throat pouch to catch fish and drain the water own before swallowing. Young pelicans will also feed directly from their parents’ throat pouch.
This guide will help you identify the types of Pelicans spotted in California according to avibase and uses data collected from bird watchers on ebird to give real information about when these birds can be spotted.
2 Species Of Pelican In California:
Brown Pelicans can be found all year in California and are mainly spotted along the coast. They are recorded in up to 8% of summer and winter checklists submitted by bird watchers for the state.
Non-breeding adult Brown Pelicans normally have white heads and necks with pale yellow foreheads. Their pale, long bills are part yellow, part orange. Their bodies are grayish-brown with short, black legs and webbed feet. Juveniles have brown heads, necks, backs, and wings. Their long bills are bluish-gray. They are light brown underneath.
The Brown Pelican has five subspecies, and two of these breed in the United States. P.o.californicus is the Pacific Coast variant, and P.o.carolinensis is the Atlantic Coast variant.
The differences between the Pacific and Atlantic Brown Pelicans are more obvious during the Breeding Season. Both species have white heads with brighter yellow foreheads. Their napes’ color turns from white to dark brown. Atlantic Brown Pelicans have olive-brown throat pouches, while Pacific Brown Pelicans have red skin on their throat pouches.
- Pelecanus occidentalis
- Length: 48 – 50 in (122 – 127 cm)
- Weight: 131.2 oz (3718 g)
- Wingspan: 78 – 84 in (198 – 213 cm)
Brown Pelicans either breed and migrate or are resident all year along the Pacific Coast and Atlantic Coasts of North America and down to northern South America.
You can find Brown Pelicans around shallow water environments. They live year-round in estuaries and coastal marine habitats. You can also see them in mangrove islets and on sandbars, breakwaters, and offshore rocks when they’re resting.
Brown Pelicans have a unique foraging ability that makes them stand out. They can dive into deep ocean waters to capture their prey in their throat pouches. When they surface, water drains from their pouches, allowing them to swallow their catch immediately.
They primarily eat fish like sardines and herring. When they’re not diving, they casually swim and simply seize prey with their bills. They may eat crustaceans like prawns, amphibians, eggs, and other young birds.
Brown Pelican calls: Adults are usually silent, except for the occasional grunt, but juveniles will squark to beg for food.
Nests of Brown Pelicans are more often built on the ground rather than on trees. They are usually concealed and protected on islands, mangroves, and cliffs. The female builds the nest out of reeds, leaves, pebbles, and sticks, packed with soil. The female lays two to four eggs that they both incubate for about a month.
Fun Fact: Brown Pelicans incubate their eggs by covering them using their webbed feet. This practice became detrimental to the species because there was a time when the pesticide DDT caused the thinning of the eggshells and led them to break from the weight of their parent’s feet. It took many conservation efforts to re-establish the numbers of the Brown Pelicans.
American White Pelican
American White Pelicans are spotted all year in California, especially from July to January. They occur in up to 5% of summer and winter checklists.
American White Pelicans are large soaring birds that have the second largest average wingspan of any North American bird.
Non-breeding adult American White Pelicans are white all over, except for black flight feathers that are only visible when in flight or when the wings are spread. They have bluish-gray eyes and yellow facial skin around their eyes. They have pale orange bills, pouches, and feet. Juveniles have light gray feathers with darker brown napes.
Breeding adult American White Pelicans have distinctly different coloring from non-breeding adults. They grow a yellow plate on their upper bills, like a horn. They still have the all-white bodies, but around their eyes, their bills, and their legs and feet become brighter orange.
American White Pelicans have several molting changes, known as eclipse. In the Spring, they have a visible yellowish patch on their breast and chest. In the summer, blackish feathers appear on their heads.
- Pelecanus erythrorhynchos
- Length: 60 – 63 in (152 – 160 cm)
- Weight: 246.4 oz (6983 g)
- Wingspan: 96 – 110 in (244 – 279 cm)
American White Pelicans breed in remote lakes inland in North America before spending the winter on the southern Pacific Coast of the US, the Gulf of Mexico, Mexico, and Central America. They can be spotted during migration in western and central US states.
You can find American White Pelicans in shallow freshwater lakes, wetlands, and edges of lakes and rivers. In the winter, you can find them in coastal bays, inlets, and estuaries where they forage in shallow water and rest on sandbars.
American White Pelicans mostly eat fish. They swim on the surface and capture their prey through their huge bills. They also forage as a group with other birds and conduct an almost strategic, coordinated effort to drive fish toward shore where they can efficiently scoop them up.
They are also opportunistic feeders that go where the food is. They may travel great distances in search of better feeding grounds. They may also eat crayfish, amphibians, and salamanders. They are also known to steal fish from other birds from the surface of the water.
American White Pelican calls: These birds are usually silent or only make a few grunts. However, the young can be noisy in the large colonies begging for food.
Nests of the American White Pelican are simple, shallow depressions on the ground. Twigs, sticks, reeds, and other materials are added on top of the soil as protection for the eggs.
The female then lays one to two eggs which both parents incubate together for up to thirty-six days. Unfortunately, only one chick per nest survives due to siblicide (when one sibling kills the other).
Fun Facts: The long and huge bill of the American White Pelican is capable of holding three gallons of water. When it scoops up fish from the sea, it tilts its bill down to drain the water so it can then swallow the fish that’s left inside its throat sac.