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Wildlife Spotlight: California Brown Pelican

California brown pelican taking off mid-flight from sandy socal beach.

The California brown pelican, one of two pelican species found in Orange County, is a coastal bird that can be spotted along the Pacific Coast from Canada to Mexico. They prefer saltwater environments and are commonly found on rocky or sandy beaches, islands, harbors, estuaries and open sea for feeding. Within the Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks, you are almost guaranteed to see them within Upper Newport Bay.

Known for their impressive diving ability, these pelicans are the only ones considered plunge divers. They make dramatic dives from heights ranging from ten to thirty feet above the surface, and in some cases, even as high as one hundred feet. Depending on the depth of their meal, the brown pelican will adjust their diving height. Using their bill, they then scoop up fish into their enormous pouch which can hold up to three gallons of water and fish, making it the largest pouch of any bird in the world. Brown pelicans feed primarily on fish, particularly anchovies, and can consume up to 4 pounds of fish per day.

With their large, heavy all-brown bodies and huge bills, brown pelicans are easily recognizable. They weigh around eight pounds and have a length of a little over four feet, with a wingspan of over six-and-a-half feet.

While the majority of the California brown pelican population nests in Mexico, there are also long-term breeding colonies on the Channel Islands and Santa Barbara Islands. These are the only breeding sites found in the United States. These nesting colonies are established on islands that are free from predators and human habitation.

The California brown pelican was removed from the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife in 2009, as it is no longer in danger of extinction, however, it remains protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. These unique birds continue to thrive in their coastal habitats, playing a vital role.