Distribution of brown pelican red: year-round nonbreeding orange: year-round breeding
The brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) is a North American bird of the pelican family, Pelecanidae. It is one of three pelican species found in the Americas and one of two that feed by diving in water. It is found on the Atlantic Coast from Nova Scotia to the mouth of the Amazon River, and along the Pacific Coast from British Columbia to northern Chile, including the Galapagos Islands. The nominate subspecies in its breeding plumage has a white head with a yellowish wash on the crown. The nape and neck are dark maroon–brown. The upper sides of the neck have white lines along the base of the gular pouch, and the lower fore neck has a pale yellowish patch. The male and female are similar, but the female is slightly smaller. The nonbreeding adult has a white head and neck. The pink skin around the eyes becomes dull and gray in the nonbreeding season. It lacks any red hue, and the pouch is strongly olivaceous ochre-tinged and the legs are olivaceous gray to blackish-gray.
The brown pelican mainly feeds on fish, but occasionally eats amphibians, crustaceans, and the eggs and nestlings of birds. It nests in colonies in secluded areas, often on islands, vegetated land among sand dunes, thickets of shrubs and trees, and mangroves. Females lay two or three oval, chalky white eggs. Incubation takes 28 to 30 days with both sexes sharing duties. The newly hatched chicks are pink, turning gray or black within 4 to 14 days. About 63 days are needed for chicks to fledge. Six to 9 weeks after hatching, the juveniles leave the nest, and gather into small groups known as pods.
P. o. californicus (Ridgway, 1884) – This subspecies breeds on the Pacific coast of California and Baja California, and south to Jalisco. Its non-breeding range extends north along the Pacific coast to British Columbia, and south to Guatemala. It is rarely found in El Salvador.
The brown pelican is part of a clade that includes the Peruvian pelican (P. thagus) and the American white pelican (P. erythrorhynchos). The Peruvian pelican was previously treated as a subspecies of the brown pelican, but is now considered a separate species on the basis of its much greater size (around double the weight of the brown pelican), differences in bill color and plumage, and a lack of hybridization between the forms despite a large range overlap. In contrast, hybridization between brown and white pelicans is possible.