Birds of Seabrook Island



  Brown Pelican



Species Acct.
NW Warblers


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View Pelicans in Winter
View Breeding Birds on Deveaux Bank
View Pelicans in the Galapagos
  Order Pelecaniformes - Totipalmate swimmers
   Family Pelecanidae - Pelicans
  Totipalmate Swimmers have all four toes connected by a web. All but the tropicbirds possess a gular pouch. The salt (osmoregulatory) gland is located within the orbit rather than above it. They lack an incubation patch.
   The Encyclopedia of Life regards Pelecaniformes and Ciconiiformes as synonyms.
Pelicans are medium-sized fish-eating birds with large gular pouches. Their bill is hooked at the tip. Their skin has air cells (it is said to be emphysematous) and the skeleton is light (not dense).
   Pelicans are are colonial breeders. Nests may be stick platforms in trees - in our area they are usually scrapes. They lay ~2 eggs and both parents incubate, holding the eggs on or under the webs of their feet. Both provide subsequent care and food for the young. Initially, chicks stick their head and bill deeply into the adult's throat to receive regurgitated food. 
Strand Feeding
Deveaux Bank Heritage Preserve

Visiting Sea Bird Colonies
Soaring Birds
MORE (Order)      MORE (Family)
  Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis 
   Cornell     USGS     Wiki     ToL     EoL
        YEAR ROUND - Common (fewer in winter) / Common (breeds on Deveaux Bank)
           BEACH, ESTUARIES, LAGOON, DEVEAUX BANK (salt water)
   Brown Pelicans are medium-sized pelicans which often fly in groups forming "Vs" or lines of several to 20 or so individuals. They may fly high, often riding thermals, or low near the waves. When fishing they fly alone and dive from 20 or so feet to catch their food (or feed from the surface in shallower water). I've seen them descend on Capn' Sam's Creek near low tide with the gular pouch expanded. They land softly and scoop up the unlucky fish spotted from above. Their ability to discern the depth of water and decide whether they can dive or need to land is clearly adaptive!
   Their eyes are not adapted for underwater vision - touch plays the major role in catching fish after they enter the water.
   Young birds are brownish with light bellies. Adults have a white neck, often with some yellow feathers on the forehead and face. Breeding adults also have a chestnut stocking around the base of their neck, extending up to the back of their head. The upper mandible may have varying degrees of red showing in adults. The lores and facial skin of breeding birds tend to be pink. Their size, shape, and flight patterns make them easy to identify.
   They are typical birds of the shore and are almost exclusively marine (usually staying within 100 miles of the shore).

Brown Pelican

Brown Pelican flying. Adult. Note slotted outer primaries (4 feathers). Each feather acts as an independent "wing" adding lift.
  Subspecies: There are five populations of Brown Pelicans found in the New World -
   P. o. carolinensis - Eastern Brown Pelican - coastal South Carolina to Venezuela
   P. o. californicus - California Brown Pelican - coastal California and western Mexico
   P. o. occidentalis - Caribbean Brown Pelican - West Indies
   P. o. murphy - Pacific Brown Pelican - coasts of western Colombia and Ecuador
   P. o. urinator - Galapagos Brown Pelican - Galapagos Islands
A sixth subspecies, P. o. thagus. or a separate species, the Peruvian Pelican, P thagus, is found along  the coasts of Peru and Chile. This sub/species is colored much like other Brown Pelicans and it is also a plunge diver (no other pelican species feed this way), but has twice the mass (weight) of the Brown Pelican and is generally believed to be a separate species. See a list of all pelicans.
  RANGE: Brown Pelicans nest in colonies along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts (Atlantic birds) and southern California and Baja California (Pacific birds). Many of the Atlantic birds move south to Florida and the Gulf in winter and they may be relatively scarce in February on our beaches. Pelicans are seldom seen inland.
  BREEDING: Monogamous. One brood. Brown Pelicans nest colonially and lay 3 (2-4) eggs in a scrape with some materials forming a rim (or in nests in mangroves farther south - substantial tree nests may be reused in successive years). The female builds a nest on the ground or in low vegetation using material provided by the male. Both parents incubate for 28-30 days. Young are altricial (downless, blind, and requiring parental care). They are fed by both parents. Young may leave the nest at about 5 weeks of age and gather in groups (crèches) waiting to be fed by their parents. They are be able to fly after 71-88 days. Adults may continue to feed young after leaving the colony for some extended period. They raise one clutch/year.
   Note that females do not breed until they are three years old (males may be older). Brown Pelicans live up to 30 years.
   Historically, populations crashed between the 50s and early 70s due to widespread organochlorine contamination of the environment. This resulted in egg-shell thinning and, eventually, led to the banning of DDT. Human disturbance of nesting colonies is also a direct threat. They breed on Deveaux bank, the ebb tidal delta of the North Edisto River just off our shore. This is the largest breeding colony of the Atlantic population of the species.
  DIET: Brown Pelicans feed largely on anchovies in the breeding season but will take some prawns. They also may take menhaden and smelt. Young are fed by regurgitation (early) or are handed whole fish (late). Their eyes are not adapted for underwater vision.
    Brown Pelicansmay be drawn to rich food sources away from the ocean in winter.
  VOICE: Generally silent.
   Checklists -
      Seabrook. Kiawah - common year-round. Edisto - year-round.
      Coastal - fairly common permanent resident. Hilton Head - common permanent resident.
         Cape Romain - abundant/abundant (breeds)/common/abundant. Huntington Beach - common, year-round.
      Caw Caw - rare/rare/rare/rare. ACE- rare/rare/rare/rare.
   CBC: ACE 22, 4, 2, 34, 7, 27, 32, 0; Charleston 409, 497, 342, 481, 287, 1112, 255, 210;
            St. Helena/Fripp x, x, x, x, x, x, 267, 536; Hilton Head 1441, 994, 510, 702, 448, 332, 953, 606; Sun City/Okatie 35, 23, 33, 20, 9, 11, 40, 32;
            McClellanville 409, 302, 117, 213, nc, 198, 142, 181; Winyah Bay x, x, 334, 194, 326, 358, 188, 285;
               Litchfield/Pawley's 630, 490, 1214, 203. 181, 348, 661, 1225.
   P&G: Common resident on coast with numbers decreasing in winter.
   M&P: Breeding Brown Pelicans declined from over 5000 breeding pairs before 1960 to about 1000 pairs in the late 60s due to pesticide residues causing reproductive failure. The population recovered by the late 70s and early 80s (estimates of breeding pairs include 6652 in 1982, 5321 nests in 1985, and 5839 nests in 1986). Pelicans have occurred during the winter since at least 1932 and continue to increase as the breeding range moves farther north
   Avendex: 4 coastal records - 5760 at Cape Romain, summer 1983. Species most abundant from May to September.
   Potter: Brown Pelicans have recovered from the affects of DDT and may be more numerous than the were before. They are locally fairly common to very common along the coast at all seasons.
  ●   Brown Pelicans occur in coastal waters, They characterize our beaches year round although there are fewer present in late fall and mid-winter (many appear to shift farther south - not really a migration, just a feeding movement). Watch for them riding differential winds close to the water over waves, along the fore dunes and forest edge, and soaring to hundreds of feet in summer thermals. They make flying look like fun!
   Note that the largest Brown Pelican rookery in South Carolina (and along the East Coast) is on nearby Deveaux Bank (below).
   See Plunge Diving.
Strand Feeding
    Dolphins in our area have learned to cooperatively drive schools of fish on shore so they can isolate them and feed more easily. It is to be expected that other fish-eating animals might enjoy the "largesse" provided by dolphins. Note the "helping" Brown Pelican above hoping top snatch a loose meal.. Photo by Ed Konrad
Deveaux Bank Heritage Preserve
Deveaux Bank
Laughing Gulls
Brown Pelicans
Deveaux Bank from 1000', high tide, June 2007. The North Edisto River separates Botany Island (Edisto) on the left from Seabrook on the right. 9-10 species of colonial waterbirds nest in the vegetation and on higher ridges of this sand island.
Vegetation and Laughing Gulls overhead.
Along the western margin of Deveaux Bank

Brown Pelicans on their nests on Deveaux Bank in 2007 when 1268 birds were counted by DNR biologists.

    Banner - Brown Pelicans, North Beach.

KEY:    ■ Seabrook list     □ Kiawah list