The Brown Pelican Louisiana's State Bird

By Jay V. Huner
Journal Correspondent

The common pelican in our Piney Woods is the American White Pelican (see The Piney Woods Journal December 2017). But, every once in a while Louisiana's state bird, the Brown Pelican, graces Piney Woods lakes and reservoirs with its presence. This almost always follows summer tropical weather carrying this coastal species inland. They can remain a short time, returning quickly to the coast, or well into the winter.

It's hard to miss any pelican. They are huge water birds with conspicuous bill pouches. The American White Pelican is white with the exception of black flight feathers. Brown Pelicans, as their common name suggests, are brown. Immature birds are an overall gray brown color.

Adults, especially in nesting season, have much white on heads and necks. The back of the neck is a rich chestnut brown during the breeding season. The face is a yellowish-buff color then as well. Body, of course, is brownish.

The Brown Pelican is a ponderous bird like its white cousin but its size is smaller with a wingspan of 6.5 feet versus 8.5-9 feet. It may seem ungainly but it is a master diver dropping from heights of up to 60 feet to catch its prey. It is truly amazing to watch a Brown Pelican literally fall out of the sky, diving with a twist of its head to the left to protect its trachea as it enters the water. The explosive impact of the dive often stuns prey like menhaden, anchovies and sardines. These are scooped up in the huge pouch which can hold up to 2+ gallons of water.

Upon rising to the surface, Brown Pelicans squeeze the water out of their pouches prior to swallowing their catches. However, this is a "messy" practice and it is not uncommon for nearby gulls and terns to try to steal the fish from the pelicans' bills, a process called kelpto- parasitism.

American White Pelicans form living seines to herd prey near shore where they scoop up their meals. Interestingly, young Brown Pelicans sometimes catch prey in this manner but more often alone rather than in a collective effort.

Brown Pelicans have adapted well to humans. They are consummate "panhandlers" and often frequent marinas where fish are cleaned and coastal fishing piers where they wait for handouts from sympathetic fishermen.

Brown Pelicans are common all around the Gulf coastal rim and northward along the south Atlantic coast. They are also common from the central California coast southward to Central America. However, they literally disappeared from the southeastern USA in the 1960s as a result of the concentration of chlorinated hydrocarbon pesticides, especially DDT, that caused egg shells that weaken. Because Brown Pelicans incubate their eggs with their huge, webbed feet, the weight caused the egg shells to break killing the developing embryos.

Elimination of chlorinated hydrocarbon pesticides and reintroduction of Brown Pelicans from un-impacted populations has resulted in restoration of a species classified as endangered! So, Louisiana's state bird, designated in 1966, is again common along the state's coast. This is especially important because the Brown Pelican is prominently featured on the Louisiana state flag!

Brown Pelicans fly with amazing grace gliding on breezes often hanging just over the water's surface. It's common to see them flying in what seems to be single file. But, look closely and you'll see that each bird is slightly off set from the one ahead. This aids their flight with the first bird breaking turbulence making it easier for the following birds to fly with less effort.

Brown Pelicans nest on coastal islands, both on the ground in scrape nests and in shrubs including mangroves in nests made of loosely assembled twigs and vegetation. Parents tend to their young for many months.