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The Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) in Puerto Vallarta

By Griffin Page
Naturalist ~ Eco-guide


Very few birds attract attention like Pelicans do. Soaring high in the sky in flocks, forming a near perfect “V” or diving abruptly within a school of fish. They are simply amazing.


As we sit quietly by the ocean, watching their acrobatics, one can only be reminded of those prehistoric birds, leaving us to ponder on what the world was like back then. Their sheer size with their wing span of around 6 ½ feet and the grace with which they fly leaves us mesmerized.


Brown Pelicans are found from the Pacific coast of the northern part of South America, Central America up to the southern part of North America as well as the Caribbean and the Galapagos.


Here in the bay, I doubt you’ll find an area where they cannot be found. They are just everywhere you look, perched on a fisherman’s boat, a tree, a dock or just sitting there in the water, floating near the beach.


Pelicans have the largest gular sac (pouch below their beak and from which the young ones feed) of all the pelecaniformes. They build their nests in mangroves or in low coastal bushes. Females will lay 2 to 3 eggs and both parents will participate during incubation and feeding.


The fishing technique they use is a difficult one for the juveniles and occasionally, once on their own, some juveniles die of starvation for lack of having mastered the technique. In order to feed, the pelican will dive down amongst a school of fish and open its beak just before they impact the water, causing great quantities of water and some fish to accumulate inside the gular sac. They also keep their wings somewhat open and this may serve as a breaking system in order to avoid going too deep and allowing them to fish in shallow areas where small fish are more plentiful. The tricky part happens when they close their beak, keeping their head submerged and attempt to remove the water by pushing the gular sack inward with their beak and at the same time try to retain the fish.


The different coloration patterns make distinguishing juveniles and adults quite easy.


Juveniles usually have a grey face, bill and feet with a darker brown body and lighter lower body. Adults will have a grey / brown upper body, a dark or almost black under body and a white neck. Adults will also occasionally have a yellow patch on their crown. During the reproductive season, sexually mature adults will develop a dark rusty / brown line down the length of the back of their neck.


Brown Pelicans are often seen congregating along with Blue-footed Boobies, Brown Boobies as well as sea gulls.


Have you ever seen a pelican take an afternoon nap? I have and I included a photo for those of you who haven’t. They can be seen resting on a rock, laying low with their head tucked backwards into their wings. Quite interesting don’t you think?


Nature is disappearing at an alarming rate. Let’s all give a helping hand in keeping our oceans and beaches clean. Let’s make sure our mangroves and coastal environments remain populated with these spectacular birds which we would dearly miss should they one day disappear. They are not as yet threatened and that is good but it is our responsibility to make sure that they never are.


“Nature could be such a wonderful teacher if only we saw it for what it really is” ~ Monachí



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