FortWorthZoo Blog – Expedition: Education

This bird has had to battle hunting, pesticides, hurricanes and oil spills

But today it remains a story of conservation success!

The Brown Pelican Makes a Comeback

Jan. 4th | Posted by 2 comments

Have you paid a visit lately to the Texas Gulf Coast? If you have, you probably saw some pelicans. Two species of pelicans are commonly found in the Gulf Coast: brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) and white pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhyncos). Both species are fascinating birds, but today we’re going to focus on the brown pelican.

The brown pelican is the smallest of the pelican family. Though it can grow up to 4 feet long and has a wingspan of 6 or 7 feet, the brown pelican only weighs about 8 pounds. Its cousin the white pelican is almost entirely white, but the brown pelican’s plumage is a mixture of brown, white and silver-gray.

This pelican species is picky when it comes to finding a home. While white pelican habitats extend inland, brown pelicans stick to the coasts and will not stray far from coastal waters. The brown pelican lives in coastal habitats from Canada all the way south to the northern part of South America, as well as the Gulf Coast (including Texas) and even the Pacific Coast.

White pelicans live further inland than brown pelicans.

Pelicans are known for the pouches under their beaks that can hold up to three gallons of water. While soaring through the sky, the brown pelican can spot a fish swimming up to 70 feet below. The pelican dives for the fish at an impressive speed that would kill any other bird that attempted it. The brown pelican survives because of tiny air sacs underneath its skin. These air sacs cushion the impact when the bird hits the water, allowing it to scoop up its prey. Once it has a mouthful of fish, the water drains out of the pelican’s pouch, leaving only the fish. The pelican tosses its head backward and swallows the fish whole. Many adult pelicans can eat up to four pounds of fish a day.

The pouch under the brown pelican's beak can hold up to three gallons of water.

The brown pelican has needed help from conservationists since the early 1900s. To protect brown and white pelicans from being hunted for their feathers, President Theodore Roosevelt ordered the creation of the first federal wildlife refuge in 1903, located in Florida at a place called Pelican Island. At first the public cheered efforts to save pelicans, but then opinions changed.

Pelican Island was the first ever wildlife refuge. It was set aside as a safe place for pelicans to live and breed. (Photo Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Some people started to believe that the brown pelican was eating the same fish that humans liked to eat. Pelican hunting became more common because people didn’t want to have to compete with pelicans for food. Actually, these people were acting on false stories, or myths, instead of the truth. (Remember talking about myths in my blog post about bats?) As it turns out, fish that people like to eat only make up about one percent of the brown pelican’s diet.

Like the bald eagle, DDT affected the brown pelican’s food source. Runoff containing DDT was reaching coastal areas and polluting the fish. Studies found that pelicans weren’t eating enough infected prey to kill the birds but the DDT was affecting their offspring. The brown pelican population started decreasing because infected pelicans were laying eggs with thin shells that broke during incubation. Fewer baby birds were hatching, so there were fewer new pelicans to replace the pelicans that died naturally of old age.

With the combination of unregulated hunting by humans and DDT poisoning, brown pelicans were in trouble. In 1963 only six brown pelicans were seen in the entire state of Texas. A year later, not a single brown pelican was known to have hatched in the Lone Star State.

Unregulated hunting and the use of the pesticide DDT put the brown pelican at risk for extinction.

In 1968 the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department joined with other state agencies, private organizations, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Audubon Society to form the Pelican Committee. The goal of this group was to figure out why brown pelicans were disappearing and how to save them. Researchers uncovered more information about DDT and started to take action.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the brown pelican as endangered in 1970 and the bird was included in the Endangered Species Act when it passed in 1973. DDT was banned in 1972. Human activities around pelican habitats and nesting areas began to be regulated so people did not disturb or harm the birds. A number of sanctuaries were created within the brown pelican’s range for added protection. Thanks to these actions taken by conservationists, the brown pelican started to bounce back.

By 1985, brown pelican populations on the Atlantic Coast had recovered and were removed from the endangered species list. In November 2009 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the remaining brown pelican populations in the Gulf Coast from the endangered species list. It took some time, but we conservationists have once again made this bird’s story a success.

Thanks to the banning of DDT and the protection of coastal habitats, brown pelican populations have returned to healthy numbers. (Photo Credit: Discovery Education)

The United States’ brown pelican population remains stable at around 40,000 birds. However, this pelican isn’t out of harm’s way just yet. As with all animal species, there are always threats the animals’ survival.

One problem that affects brown pelicans’ ability to nest is hurricanes. Hurricane season often overlaps with the brown pelican’s nesting season. Since it only lives on the coast, the brown pelican and its nests are extremely vulnerable to hurricanes that blow through the Gulf of Mexico.

Though hurricanes are trouble for brown pelicans, humans remain the biggest threat to these birds. Just five months after the final brown pelican delisting, a huge oil spill flooded the Gulf of Mexico and put in danger many brown pelicans living on the Gulf Coast. Pelican populations in Louisiana, which was closest to the oil spill, were hit especially hard. The oil contaminated the water brown pelicans live in as well as their nesting habitats. The effects of the oil spill are serious, and biologists believe they will continue to affect brown pelicans and other marine life for decades to come.

The brown pelican still needs help, and you can do your part to keep it safe!

  • Don’t feed pelicans. Feeding pelicans food that’s meant for human bellies can make the birds sick. Recently biologists have also noticed that when people feed pelicans, the pelicans want to stay and get more food instead of migrating. It’s best if we admire these birds from a safe distance so we don’t interfere with their feeding and migration practices.
  • When visiting coastal waters, do your part by keeping the beach free of trash and litter.
  • Be extra careful if you plan on fishing. Pelicans can easily become tangled in fishing lines and nets.
  • Use as few herbicides and pesticides as possible. These chemicals can make their way to waterways and harm wildlife.
  • Safely dispose of toxins, such as paint and motor oil, so they don’t end up in waterways.

You can see brown and white pelicans when you visit the Fort Worth Zoo’s Gulf Coast exhibit inside Texas Wild! Don’t forget to send your conservation stories and ideas to me at Sam’s Inbox ( Until next time … happy exploring!

If you can't make it to the Gulf Coast, stop by the Fort Worth Zoo to visit our Gulf Coast exhibit, located in Texas Wild!



Ability: (noun) able to complete a certain task
Affect: (verb) to act on or cause a change
Attempt: (verb) to try
Coast: (noun) the seashore, an area of land next to an ocean or other large body of water
Combination: (noun) the result formed by mixing two or more things
Contaminate: (verb) to poison or make unclean by adding a bad or harmful component
DDT: (noun) a pesticide used on crops that is extremely harmful to birds
Delisting: (noun) the act of removing something from a list; for example, removing an animal from the list of endangered species
Dispose (of): (verb phrase) to get rid of or throw away
Effect: (noun) a result or consequence
Endangered: (adjective) at risk for extinction
Extend: (verb) to stretch out
Habitat: (noun) the natural environment of an organism
Herbicide: (noun) a chemical used to kill pants, usually weeds
Impact: (noun) collision, when one thing strikes another
Incubation: (noun) the process of sitting on eggs to keep them warm so they can survive to hatching
Inland: (noun) the interior part of land, removed from the coasts
Interfere: (verb) to disrupt or come into opposition
Marine: (adjective) existing in or produced by the sea
Migrate: (verb) to change location periodically, especially by moving seasonally from one reason to another
Myth: (noun) a story that is invented, made- up, false or imaginary
Oil spill: (noun) the accidental leaking of oil into a body of water that harms marine life, usually due to an underwater pipeline, offshore drilling rig or tanker
Pesticide: (noun) a chemical used to kill pests, especially insects
Plumage: (noun) all the feathers covering a bird
Prey: (noun) an animal hunted or captured by another animal for food
Recover: (verb) to regain something that has been lost or taken away
Regulate: (verb) to control or direct by rule
Runoff: (noun) something that drains or flows off, such as rain that flows off the land and into a stream
Sanctuary: (noun) a safe place for animals where predators can be controlled and hunting is forbidden
Species: (noun) a group of individuals having some common characteristics or qualities
Stable: (adjective) not likely to change, steady, firm
Stray: (verb) to wander
Threat: (noun) a warning of likely trouble
Toxin: (noun) a poisonous substance
Unregulated hunting: (noun) hunting game illegally and/or not following posted bag limits, tags, and restrictions put in place by state and/or federal fish and wildlife departments
Vulnerable: (adjective) easily targeted, likely to be attacked, unprotected, exposed
Wildlife refuge: (noun) an area of land protected for the safety of animals and other wildlife

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    2 comments Add a comment

    1. brooks lin

      I like your special words such as “plumage” and “stray”. The details are a well-done! :)
      P.S. thanks for the pencils and bookmarks.

      • Safari Sam

        Thank you, Brooks! So glad to hear that you’re learning some great vocabulary words while explroing with me. Keep up the great work!

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