The Brown Pelicans of Southern California
Once at the brink of extinction, the Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) is doing a formidable recovery, to the point where it is now a common sight along the southern and western sea coasts of the US. Southern California is a real haven for its subspecies, the California brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis californicus). You would probably not miss them if you drive along the shoreline. They fly to and from their fishing grounds in V-formations or lines, soaring effortlessly only 2 feet off the water’s surface. For longer distance flights, they will usually follow the line of cresting waves where the rolling thermal uplifts.
Brown Pelicans are massive birds, with a wingspan up to 2.5 meters! Besides their flamboyant plumage and their impressive silhouette, it is also a fascinating bird because of its feeding behavior. They prey mostly on anchovies and sardines in the most spectacular way. Spotting the fish from above, they dive bill first to catch them like Kingfishers. Head out-stretched and wings extended back. Once below the surface, they open their very large pouched bill and gorge themselves. They come up to the surface emptying the pouch of the water. The fish is then swallowed whole, head-first.
The only breeding colonies of California brown pelicans in the western United States are within Channel Islands National Park on West Anacapa and Santa Barbara islands. Today, the pelican population on West Anacapa Island averages about 4,600 nesting pairs annually and on Santa Barbara Island the average is about 1,500 nesting pairs.
Brown Pelicans live up to 25 average but the oldest individual on record was 43 years of age. Brown Pelicans do not have a brood patch. Instead, they incubate their eggs under the webbing of their feet. So they simply stand on their eggs to keep them warm. The pesticide DDT caused pelicans to lay thinner eggs that cracked under the weight of incubating parents. This is why the species was listed as endangered in 1970. But now, thanks to incredible conservation efforts, it is listed as Least Concern by the IUCN.