The brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) is a common American pelican species found on coastlines of both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It is best known for its large gular sac, or “pouch,” which it uses to hold prey that it has captured. It nests in secluded colonies, and Isla Nublar is one of its traditional habitats.
The brown pelican is the national bird of Saint Martin, Barbados, Saint Kitts and Nevis, and the Turks and Caicos Islands. It is the state bird of Louisiana.
There are several subspecies of brown pelican:
- Pelecanus occidentalis occidentalis, Caribbean and northern South America
- Pelecanus occidentalis carolinensis, Atlantic coast of North America and both coasts of Central America
- Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, Pacific coast of the United States, Canada, and Mexico
- Pelecanus occidentalis murphyi, Pacific coast of Central and South America
- Pelecanus occidentalis urinator, endemic to the Galápagos Islands
Based on locality, the subspecies found in the Gulf of Fernandez is most likely P. o. murphyi.
Brown pelicans are birds with mostly dark brown plumage, with white to pale yellow necks and black feet and legs. Though they are quite large, with a wingspan of 1.8-2.5 meters, they are the smallest species of pelican. Like their larger relatives, their most distinguishing feature is their long, 23-34 centimeter beak, which has a hooked tip and a large pouch. Their legs are short, and all four of their toes are webbed. Their large wingspan allows them to soar quite well, and they often glide low over the water while searching for fish to eat.
During the non-breeding season, adults have white on the head and neck, and the skin around the eyes is dull gray. As the breeding season approaches, the head and neck turn creamy yellow, and the skin around the eyes turns pink. The bill’s tip becomes pinkish-red to pale orange during courtship, with the very tip being brighter red; the pouch becomes black. The bill becomes pale gray later in the breeding season.
Hatchlings, like most birds, cannot fly immediately; their flight feathers grow in later. They are born pink, turning gray or black after four days to two weeks. Following this they develop a coat of white, gray, or black down. Juveniles can be distinguished by their grayish color and dusky brown head, neck, and thighs. The tail and flight feathers are browner, and the abdomen is white; the underparts are paler overall than those of the adult. The bill is gray, with yellow near the tip, and the pouch is dull pink.
Adult plumage grows in at three years old.
There is little sexual dimorphism in the brown pelican, but females are slightly smaller. The head feathers of the male are a little more rigid.
Brown pelicans are coastal-dwelling marine birds, and are found on the Atlantic and Pacific coastlines of North and South America. In some regions such as Costa Rica, the brown pelican is a migratory bird, nesting in the south and traveling north along the coast for the summer. It is seen near shores, rarely traveling more than twenty miles from land; it avoids the open ocean. Typical habitats include estuaries, bays, and mangrove swamps. They can be seen roosting on rocks, sandy beaches, mudflats, and artificial structures; at times they may rest on the water.
The brown pelican is a dispersal resident on Isla Nublar, meaning it regularly nests there during its breeding season and travels away during other times of the year. On June 12, 1993, five or six adults were seen flying near the island’s southwestern coast. These animals were probably among the last to leave the island, as the breeding season would have ended by that time. It is unknown how much the construction of Jurassic Park disturbed their nesting areas.
According to Masrani Global Corporation‘s Jurassic World management division, the brown pelican is the largest migratory bird that visits Isla Nublar. In 2005, an agreement was signed between Masrani Global and the Costa Rican Environmental Protection Society to preserve the nesting habitats of the brown pelican on Isla Nublar. Hundreds of migratory birds nest on Isla Sorna’s coasts, many of which are probably brown pelicans.
The population of pelicans was probably unaffected by the June 23, 2018 volcanic eruption of Mount Sibo. As they are migratory birds which breed during March and April, they would have already begun migrating north by the time of the eruption. Any remaining on Isla Nublar would most likely have fled. By the time they returned the following year, the most devastating part of the eruption would have long since ended, leaving the pelicans free to utilize their coastal nesting sites as usual. The elimination of terrestrial predators on the island may have even benefited the pelicans.
Brown pelicans are found throughout the tropical and subtropical regions of the Americas, with subspecies found on both the Atlantic and Pacific shores. They range from partway up the North American Atlantic coast, including the Carolinas, down to the northern parts of South America. One subspecies, P. o. urinator, is found five hundred miles west of Ecuador in the Galápagos Islands.
Behavior and Ecology
Brown pelicans are mostly diurnal. Several were seen on June 12, 1993 flying between late morning and midday.
Diet and Feeding Behavior
This bird is a piscivore, feeding almost entirely on fish. However, it will eat amphibians, crustaceans, small reptiles, and even small birds or their eggs at times. Menhaden account for 90% of its diet; it also eats large amounts of anchovies. On some occasions, they may be cannibalistic, eating eggs or hatchlings of their own species.
To catch fish, the brown pelican will fly up to 70 feet in the air and search the shallower parts of the ocean for schools of fish. It will then dive beak-first into the water, opening its beak to capture fish in its bill’s large gular sac. The pelican may carry its prey to a safe location to swallow, or gulp it down while floating on the water. It spills out the water from its pouch before swallowing.
As a gregarious animal, the brown pelican travels in flocks. Many colonies can be found in the same area, and nesting territories may be only a few feet apart. Flocks consist of both sexes and various age groups and persist throughout the year. Brown pelicans fly in groups on most occasions, either in regular lines or single file. They may sometimes fly in a V formation. Brown pelicans are often seen flying low over the water’s surface when in level flight.
During a breeding season, brown pelicans stay in monogamous pairs, though these pairs usually do not last through multiple seasons. They arrive to their breeding grounds in the spring, males selecting spots to display to females with head movements. When a female approaches, both sexes will display to each other using head motions and vocalizations.
Once the pair bond is established, obvious communication is minimal between them. Secluded areas, often on islands, are used as nesting sites. The pelican may nest in sand dunes, shrubbery, and mangroves, sometimes nesting on cliffs, but rarely in bushes or small trees. Females build the nests out of pebbles and plant material, lining the nest with feathers and surrounding it with a rim of soil that may be up to ten inches high. Nests are often several feet above ground level.
Two or three, or sometimes four, ovular chalky white eggs are laid in the nest. Eggs are about three inches long and two inches wide. Both the male and female care for the eggs, which take roughly thirty days to incubate. The hatchlings fledge after a little over sixty days, at which point they join with other juveniles in groups called pods. The first fledgling is usually the most successful, with each successively younger fledgling having a lesser chance of survival.
The parents feed their fledglings regurgitated fish. The fledglings can walk after about thirty-five days, leaving the nest for the first time. After seventy to ninety days, they can fly, and begin to become independent. Maturity is reached at five years old, and they may live for around thirty years.
Brown pelicans are not extremely vocal, but they may make many kinds of harsh grunting sounds during courtship displays. Adults may make croaking noises, while young make squealing cries.
The brown pelican is the largest migratory bird on Isla Nublar, and so likely has dominance over the smaller species. It is sometimes the target of kleptoparasitism, in which other animals such as gulls and skuas attempt to steal food from it. Various birds of prey, as well as large reptiles, are predators of juveniles and eggs. Sea lions and sharks may sometimes prey on adults, but the adults are generally too large to suffer predation from terrestrial animals. Some carnivorous dinosaurs may have preyed on the adults on Isla Nublar.
Due to their diet of fish, particularly mullets, the brown pelican is a host to various parasitic worms.
Relationship to Humans
Brown pelicans are a protected species under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. As of such, it cannot be legally hunted, though it is so common that it is sometimes still killed for its feathers and eggs in Latin America. It is generally tolerated by fishermen and beachgoers and is a characteristic species in many coastal communities in the Americas.
On Isla Nublar, the brown pelican was protected by Masrani Global Corporation between 2005 and 2015 thanks to an agreement signed with the Costa Rican Environmental Protection Society.
Behind the Scenes
In Jurassic Park, the brown pelican serves as a reminder that the lineage of theropod dinosaurs continues to thrive in nature in the form of birds.