Pelicans in California (With Pictures)

Pelicans in California (With Pictures)

As the sun dips below the horizon, casting a warm, golden glow over California’s picturesque coastline, a magnificent spectacle unfolds. Silhouetted against the vibrant hues of the Pacific Ocean, a squadron of graceful birds soars in unison, their enormous wings beating in harmony. These are the pelicans of California, nature’s aerial acrobats and marine ambassadors of the Golden State.

In this article, we embark on a journey to explore the fascinating world of pelicans in California. From the iconic Brown Pelicans that gracefully dive into the ocean for their daily catch to the elegant White Pelicans that inhabit the state’s serene freshwater lakes, California’s pelicans are a testament to nature’s resilience and adaptability.

We’ll delve into their extraordinary behaviours, uncover their unique ecological roles, and gain insights into the conservation efforts aimed at preserving these charismatic birds’ habitats. Join us as we take flight into the realm of pelicans, where sky and sea converge, and a captivating avian world unfolds along California’s stunning shores.

1. American White Pelican

  • Scientific name: Pelecanus erythrorhynchos
  • Life span: 10-15 years
  • Size: 50-70 inches
  • Weight: 11-20 pounds (5-9 kg)
  • Wingspan: 9.0-9.8 feet (2.7-3.0 m)
  • Status: Least Concern           
  • State status: Breeding and migratory and rare

The American White Pelican, a majestic inhabitant of North America, graces the continent with its striking presence. With a wingspan that can reach up to nine feet, these pelicans are a symbol of grace in flight. Their plumage, predominantly white, is adorned with contrasting black flight feathers that become more pronounced during their soaring manoeuvres.

American White Pelican

Found primarily in the western and central regions of North America, these pelicans favour a variety of aquatic habitats, including large lakes, reservoirs, and coastal areas. During the breeding season, a distinguishing feature emerges as their bills transform into vibrant, knob-like structures. These iconic bills and their stark white plumage make American White Pelicans a mesmerizing sight for birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts alike.

American White Pelicans in California prefer tranquil settings for their nesting colonies. They often choose secluded islands in freshwater lakes and marshes. These pelicans construct relatively simple nests made of sticks, reeds, and local vegetation. The nests are shallow and offer little in the way of privacy, but they serve their purpose. During the breeding season, these colonies are a contrast to the coastal chaos, offering a serene glimpse into their family life.

These American White Pelicans are cooperative fishermen, showcasing their teamwork and dining habits on California’s calm lakes and lagoons. They form groups and create a semi-circle to corral fish into shallow waters. Their diet includes a variety of aquatic life, such as fish, amphibians, and crustaceans. Watching their synchronized fishing expeditions on California’s tranquil waters is a lesson in nature’s resourcefulness.

American White Pelican

While not as threatened as some other species, American White Pelicans in California still face challenges, particularly habitat loss and disturbances at their nesting sites. Conservationists are actively working to safeguard these critical habitats and raise awareness about the importance of these majestic birds in California’s ecosystems. The American White Pelican serves as a symbol of California’s commitment to preserving its unique wildlife and natural treasures.

2. Brown Pelican

  • Scientific name: Pelecanus occidentalis
  • Life span: Up to 25 years
  • Size: 40-53 inches
  • Weight: 4-8 pounds (1.8-3.6 kg)
  • Wingspan: 6.0-7.4 feet (1.8-2.3 m)
  • Status: Least Concern
  • State status: Breeding and migratory and rare

The Brown Pelican, with its distinctive appearance and coastal lifestyle, is a familiar sight along the shores of the Americas. Its robust frame, dark brown plumage, and long, sturdy bill characterize this species. In flight, their wings reveal a striking contrast, with pale undersides and darker topsides, creating a striking visual against the backdrop of ocean waves.

These pelicans are primarily found along the coastlines of North and South America, with their range extending from the southern United States down to the northern regions of South America. Renowned for their dramatic plunge-diving behaviour, Brown Pelicans are a testament to nature’s precision. As they hover above the water, they spot their prey, tuck their wings, and plunge headfirst into the sea to scoop up fish in their elastic throat pouches.

Brown Pelican

Intriguing and adaptable, Brown Pelicans are a symbol of coastal beauty and resilience, and they continue to capture the imagination of those who witness their remarkable feats along the ocean’s edge.

Along California’s picturesque coastlines, the Brown Pelican displays intriguing nesting behaviours. These remarkable birds tend to nest in colonies, often occupying offshore islands and secluded coastal areas. Unlike some other birds, Brown Pelicans don’t construct elaborate nests. Instead, they typically scrape shallow depressions in the sand or gravel, relying on the isolation of these nesting sites to protect their eggs and chicks. During the breeding season, these colonies become bustling hubs of activity as adults share incubation and chick-rearing duties.

The Brown Pelican’s feeding habits are a sight to behold along California’s shores. They are plunge divers, soaring above the waves before dramatically diving headfirst into the water to scoop up their prey. Their diet mainly consists of small, schooling fish like anchovies and sardines. This hunting technique, often seen in groups, is a remarkable spectacle for birdwatchers along the coast.

Brown Pelican

The Brown Pelican’s conservation history in California tells a story of resilience. These birds faced a significant threat from the pesticide DDT, which caused reproductive failures and population declines. However, after the ban of DDT in the 1970s and extensive conservation efforts, the Brown Pelican made a remarkable recovery. Conservationists have worked diligently to protect their nesting habitats and ensure their continued survival. Today, the Brown Pelican stands as a symbol of successful conservation in California’s coastal ecosystems.

Where to look for them

Spotting pelicans in California is a rewarding experience, given the state’s diverse coastal and inland habitats. To observe these magnificent birds, you’ll need to visit the right locations and use some strategic techniques. Here’s a guide on where to find pelicans in California and how to do it:

  • Coastal Cliffside Overlooks: California’s extensive coastline offers numerous opportunities to spot pelicans. Head to coastal cliffside overlooks, such as those along Big Sur’s Highway 1, where you can enjoy panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean. Brown Pelicans are often seen gliding along the cliffs and diving into the ocean for their daily catch. Bring binoculars or a spotting scope for a closer look.
  • Estuaries and Lagoons: California is dotted with estuaries and lagoons, which are favourite hangouts for American White Pelicans. Places like Elkhorn Slough near Monterey and the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve in Huntington Beach provide ideal settings for pelican watching. Try visiting during low-tide hours when pelicans gather to feed.
  • Freshwater Lakes: American White Pelicans also frequent freshwater lakes across California. Lake Merritt in Oakland and Mono Lake near Yosemite are two great examples. Rent a kayak or take a guided boat tour to get up close to their nesting sites.
  • Wildlife Refuges: California boasts several wildlife refuges dedicated to bird conservation. Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge and Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge are top choices for pelican sightings. Trails and observation points in these areas offer excellent vantage points.

When pelican watching, remember to maintain a respectful distance to avoid disturbing these birds, especially during the breeding season. Bring along a good pair of binoculars or a camera with a telephoto lens to capture their beauty from afar. With patience and a keen eye, you can witness the grace and elegance of pelicans in their natural California habitats.


In the golden expanse of California’s coastline, pelicans reign as icons of grace and resilience. From the tranquil estuaries to the rugged cliffs and serene lakeshores, these magnificent birds offer nature enthusiasts a captivating spectacle.

Whether you’re a seasoned birdwatcher or a casual observer, witnessing pelicans in California’s diverse habitats leaves an indelible mark. These majestic birds serve as a testament to the state’s commitment to conservation, a reminder that preserving the beauty of our natural world ensures a future where pelicans continue to grace California’s skies and waters with their timeless elegance.

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