The Skydiving Brown Pelican

Like The Osprey, the Brown pelican was pushed to the verge of extinction by the extensive use of pesticides, which found their way in to the food chain. Also in common with the osprey, the pelican is a symbol of hope, and stands for what we can achieve when leaders take decisive action. Pelicans are once again a common sight around the southern states of coastal USA, Mexico and the Caribbean islands.

There are eight species of pelican around the world, of which the Brown is the smallest, with a wingspan of up to 6.5 feet (198cm). The Australian Pelican  being the largest of the species. The American White pelican is the only other member of the family found in the USA. The American White is a migratory bird, more likely to be found on inland waters during the summer months.

I had the opportunity to see and photograph these pelicans at Fort Myers and the Florida island of Sanibel. I managed to snap just a few shots before the blanket of cloud burst open sending me running for cover from a torrential rain storm.

Breeding Atlantic adult

During the breeding season the white neck of the Brown pelican turns a rich, reddish brown.

Displaying the reddish brown neck


The white neck is non-breeding plumage
The white neck is non-breeding plumage
Adult non-breeding plumage
Adult non-breeding plumage
Adult flying low over the water

Brown pelicans can often be seen flying low over the sea, sometimes almost touching the crests of the waves beneath them. For a chance to see these birds in flight on film, you might want to check out the closing credits of the original Jurassic Park, where this bird is the last “creature” (real or animated) to appear in the film.

Adult searching for fish
Adult searching for fish
First year juvenile flexing the beak pouch

The Brown pelican is unique amongst pelicans as it is the only member of the family that dives from height to catch its prey. It will hover at a height of around 50 feet before collapsing its wings and plunging in a twisting fall, into the water, completely submersing itself. At the moment of impact the pelican rotates its body to the left and tucks its head to cushion the trachea which is protected on the right side of the neck from the impact.

The dive sequence images below were the last photographs that I took on the Florida trip. During a final drive through Ding Darling Nature Preserve I watched this bird hunting in the distance and managed to hit the rapid fire button just in time.

DSC_0924 DSC_0925 DSC_0926 DSC_0927 DSC_0928

When the dive is complete, the pelican filters the soup of fish and water, swallowing the fish while squeezing the excess water from the beak. When fully extended, an adult pelican beak pouch can hold up to 3 gallons (11.3 litres) of water. Cheeky or perhaps just intelligent gulls have learned to stay close to the hunting pelican in search of some fishy overspill, although they are also known to be bold enough to dip into the pelican’s beak to grab a fish!

The pelican cannot judge the gulls too harshly for their thieving ways, as the birds in these photographs were waiting on a boat jetty, intent on stealing the scraps from retiring fisherman.

Under the Fort Myers to Sanibel Causeway Bridge

Despite the success of restoring the Brown pelican population to ‘Least Concern’ status, many hundreds are killed each year due to becoming entangles in fishing twine or nets. The message to anglers is clear – enjoy your hobby, but take your old fishing line and hooks home with you. Sure, you might accidentally lose line in a snag. but pick up any off-cuts from the beach and don’t allow it to fall in the water.

Watch for these huge birds, so awkward on land but so adroit in the air, while on Florida beaches or any coastal walk in the southern Pacific, Gulf or Atlantic states of the USA.

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Categories: USATags: , , , , , , ,


I am a wildlife blogger and traveler, using images & stories to inspire wild connections.


  1. David, these is a stunning group of photos of a bird I don’t see here. We only have white pelicans here so it seems very special to me when I see pictures of brown ones. I’ve never seen such close up details of their faces before though or of them diving like this. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. De bec et de plumes

    I love Pelican, I’ve ever seen 4 of the 8 species… and I hope more soon 🙂

    I browsed your blog, it is very good. Good pictures, good observations…if you want to go to South of France, I will be happy to show you a few places.


    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for the kind words and your generous offer; I may take you up on it some day! Your blog looks excellent, with some great experiences! With a little help from Google Translator, I am sure I’ll enjoy reading more.


      • De bec et de plumes

        You can, I will live very soon (I’m in Guadeloupe now) near a wetland with many Greater flamingos. I’m waiting for you. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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