A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

(Unless otherwise indicated, all phone numbers are in the 707 area code)


The smaller of the two species of pelican that visit Sonoma County during the summer months and into autumn, the other being American White Pelican (Pelacanus erythrorynchos). Usually starts arriving in late May, with the main body of birds present by early July and the largest numbers usually in the county around Late September. Many birds will stay through the end of November, with smaller numbers persisting into late January. The population is lowest in February, March, April, and early May, but Brown Pelican may appear at any time of the year. Common in season at Bodega Bay and generally along the coast, but may turn up on inland fresh water ponds as well. Brown Pelican was among the birds most severely affected by pesticide use in the 1950s and 1960s that caused egg shell thinning and brood failure. Brown Pelican began to recover from the late 1970s, as use of pesticides, particularly DDT, was restricted earlier in the 70s. Brown Pelican came off the Federal endangered species list in November 2009. Brown Pelican is a spectacular fisherman, diving headfirst from heights to catch fish spied from above, much the way birds such as Caspian Tern do. Small groups often fly in lines, low over the water.

Recognized by its large, pouched bill and mostly brown or brownish-grey color. Unlikely to be confused with any other bird. American White Pelican is considerably larger and all white, except for its black flight feathers, visible only when that bird is on the wing. Immature Brown Pelicans are browner than adults--quite dark brown above, but with a pale belly (photo below). Full adult plumage is acquired in the third year. Adult Brown Pelicans in non-breeding plumage (as in the photo above,) have a mostly white neck, tinged with yellow at the forehead. Birds in full breeding plumage acquire more yellow on the head and chestnut brown at the back of the neck along with a patch of yellow at the base of the neck and a brighter yellow-orange bill and pouch. According to the National Geographic field guide, adults feeding chicks lose the yellow on the head and base of the neck, but retain the chestnut on the back of the neck.

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 21

Brinkley, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2007, p. 86

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 102

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, p. 110

Dunne, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, 2006, pp. 118-119

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, p. 20

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 56

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. 98

Kaufman, Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, p. 72

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, p. 55-56

Parmeter and Wight, Birds of Sonoma County California, Update (2000-2010), 2012, p. 18

Peterson, Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 5th ed., 2002, p. 38

Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, p. 78

Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  p. 84

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, p. 47

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, p. 113

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 98

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Brown Pelican



© Colin Talcroft, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013

Unless noted, all photos by the author. If you would like to use one of my images, please ask for permission for non-commercial use with proper credit or commercial use with proper compensation.


Immature Brown Pelican, Porto Bodega, Bodega Bay, December 13, 2011

Adult Brown Pelican, non-breeding plumage, Bodega Bay, December 13, 2011

Immature Brown Pelican in flight, Porto Bodega, Bodega Bay, September 13, 2012

For comparison: American White Pelican in flight, showing contrasting black flight feathers

Place-to-Play Park, Santa Rosa, October 10, 2012

Brown Pelican

Pelecanus occidentalis

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated May 30, 2013

EBird reported occurrence in Sonoma County