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The American Pelicans

The brown pelican has light brown or gray, white-edged feathers on its body. The back of its neck has a lengthwise band of reddish feathers, and its head is crowned with yellow feathers. Its bill is gray instead of the yellow of many pelicans. It dives directly into the water for its fish, sometimes from great heights. Brown pelicans live along the seacoasts of Florida, the Gulf, California, and northern Mexico. They often nest on mangrove islands, perched on the outermost branches of the trees.

Another population, called the Peruvian brown pelican, lives along the coast of Peru where it feeds in the Humboldt Current. It is quite a bit larger than the north American bird, with a body length of 5 ft (152 cm) as compared to 45 in (114 cm). Ornithologists are still debating whether or not it is a separate species (P. thagus) from the North American pelican.

The large American white pelican weighs up to 20 lb (9 kg) and has a wingspan of almost 10 ft (3 m). It looks all white until seen in flight, when its black flight feathers show. It is a freshwater bird, nesting on inland lakes, in central Canada and the northern central states. It spends the winter along the seaside, especially in Florida, the Gulf of Mexico, and Texas. It feeds by floating and dipping its pouch into the water. During the breeding season, the American white pelican develops a temporary hornlike growth on the upper mandible. It also grows longish plumes on its head.

Brown pelicans were seriously endangered in the late 1960s and early 1970s because the pesticide DDT had gotten into their eggs, which could not develop normally. After the use of DDT in the United States was banned, these birds gradually began to recover. Although this problem has occurred recently, pelicans have been in danger before. About 1900, they were being killed for their long flight feathers, which fashion decreed for women's hats. Bird lovers persuaded President Theodore Roosevelt to declare Pelican Island, near Cape Canaveral, Florida, as the nation's first national wildlife refuge in 1903. Today there are more than 400 national refuges in the United States.



Cook and Schreiber. Wonders of the Pelican World. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1985.

Sanford, William R., and Carl R. Green. The Pelicans. Wildlife Habits and Habitats series. Mankato, MN: Crestwood House, 1987.

Sibley, David Allen. The Sibley Guide to Birds. New York: Knopf, 2000.

Jean F. Blashfield


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—Half of a bird's bill.


—To vomit back up.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Pebi- to History of Philosophy - IndifferentismPelicans - The American pelicans