Pelicans in Florida (With Pictures)

Pelicans in Florida (With Pictures)

Pelicans are among the most iconic and easily recognizable birds gracing the shores and skies of Florida. With their distinctive long beaks and large throat pouches, these majestic birds have become synonymous with the state’s coastal landscapes. Florida is home to two species of pelicans: the Brown Pelican, found throughout the year along the coast, and the American White Pelican, a winter visitor to the state’s freshwater lakes and coastal estuaries.

These birds are not only integral to Florida’s natural beauty but also play a crucial role in its ecosystem, acting as indicators of ocean health and biodiversity.

The presence of pelicans in Florida is a testament to the state’s rich biodiversity and the health of its waterways. They are skilled fishers, using their expansive bill pouches to scoop up fish, a sight that has become emblematic of Florida’s coastal areas. However, pelicans face numerous threats, including habitat loss, pollution, and entanglement in fishing gear, which have prompted conservation efforts to ensure their survival.

This article will delve into the lives of Florida’s pelicans, exploring their habits, habitats, and the conservation measures that are helping to protect these magnificent birds for future generations to marvel at and enjoy.

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: Migratory and common

The American White Pelican is widely recognized for its extensive migratory pattern, stretching from its breeding grounds in inland North America to wintering spots along the southern coastlines, including Florida’s Gulf Coast. This species prefers freshwater habitats such as lakes and rivers during its migration and wintering periods.

Characterized by its predominantly white plumage, the American White Pelican also features contrasting black primary and secondary feathers on its wings, visible during flight. Its large, elongated bill, equipped with a distinctive pouch, is a key adaptation for feeding. The bird’s appearance is marked by its stark white body against the backdrop of its habitat, making it a notable presence in the wetlands and coastal regions where it temporarily resides.

American White Pelican

American White Pelicans are communal creatures, especially evident in their nesting practices. They establish colonies on isolated islands in freshwater lakes, a strategy that minimizes predation risks and disturbances.

These large birds are meticulous in constructing their nests, scraping the ground to form a shallow depression, which they line with vegetation and feathers. This collaborative environment fosters a unique social structure, where birds work together to protect their young and maintain the colony’s integrity. Nesting season is a vibrant and bustling time, filled with the cacophony of squawks as adults and chicks communicate incessantly.

The sight of fluffy chicks waiting eagerly for their parents’ return with food is both heart-warming and a testament to the pelican’s nurturing instincts.

The diet of the American White Pelican is predominantly fish, but these birds are not averse to diversifying their menu with amphibians and crustaceans, depending on availability. They are skilled fishermen, coordinating in groups to herd fish into shallow waters before scooping them up in their voluminous bill pouches.

This technique highlights their social nature and intelligence, showcasing a remarkable example of cooperative hunting. Watching a squadron of White Pelicans engage in such synchronized fishing is truly a spectacle, one that emphasizes their adaptability and the critical role they play in aquatic ecosystems.

Conservation efforts for the American White Pelican have been significant, given their history of facing threats from habitat destruction and environmental pollution. Protection of their breeding sites has become a priority, ensuring these birds have safe havens free from human disturbance and predation.

These efforts are supported by rigorous monitoring programs that track population health and breeding success, aiming to mitigate any adverse impacts. The rebound of the American White Pelican populations in certain areas is a conservation success story, highlighting the importance of targeted efforts and the resilience of nature when given a chance to recover.

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 common

The Brown Pelican, a resident of coastal areas across the Americas, is a common sight along the entire Florida coastline, adapting to life in both saltwater and freshwater environments. This bird is easily identified by its gray-brown body and a lighter head, which can turn nearly white in non-breeding adults.

During breeding season, their necks may display a rich, dark brown. The Brown Pelican’s large bill and expansive throat pouch are distinctive features, crucial for its diving fishing technique. Unlike its migratory counterparts, this species stays year-round in its coastal habitat, contributing to the local biodiversity.

It breeds in colonies on coastal islands, with Florida providing critical nesting sites for maintaining the species’ population.

Brown Pelican

The Brown Pelican’s approach to nesting is as unique as its rugged coastline home. These birds select coastal islands or isolated beaches for their colonies, places where predators are scarce, and food is plentiful.

Here, atop mangroves or under the shelter of brush, they construct their nests from sticks, grass, and feathers. The scene at a Brown Pelican nesting site is bustling, with adults flying back and forth, tirelessly bringing back food for their loudly chirping young. Their fidelity to their nesting sites is strong, with generations returning to the same spots year after year, a testament to their resilience and connection to their ancestral homes.

The Brown Pelican’s dining habits are a dramatic display of aerobatics and precision. Spotting a school of fish from above, they plunge from the air, tucking their wings and diving into the water headfirst. This breathtaking dive not only showcases their hunting prowess but also their adaptability to the marine environment they call home.

Their diet mainly consists of fish and occasionally crustaceans, with their specialized throat pouch enabling them to drain water before swallowing their catch. This method of feeding is as efficient as it is spectacular, ensuring these coastal dwellers thrive in their saline world.

The conservation narrative of the Brown Pelican is a rollercoaster ride from the brink of extinction to a remarkable recovery. In the mid-20th century, DDT and other pollutants decimated their populations, thinning eggshells and wreaking havoc on their reproductive success.

The banning of DDT and the implementation of protective measures under the Endangered Species Act marked a turning point for the Brown Pelican. Recovery efforts, including habitat restoration and pollution control, have since enabled their populations to rebound. Today, the Brown Pelican is a symbol of conservation success, a resilient survivor whose presence along our coastlines is a reminder of what can be achieved with dedication and care for our environment.

Where to look for Pelicans in Florida (With Pictures)

In Florida, pelicans grace both the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, providing ample opportunities for bird enthusiasts to observe these fascinating creatures in their natural habitats. To find pelicans, one should head to coastal regions, estuaries, marinas, and even inland water bodies during the winter months when the American White Pelicans migrate south.

Early morning or late afternoon, when pelicans are most active in their search for food, is the ideal time for sightings.

For those keen on spotting these majestic birds, here are four prime locations:

  • J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island: This refuge is a haven for Brown Pelicans year-round, offering visitors the chance to see them up close as they fish and roost along the mangrove-lined shores.
  • Everglades National Park: A sprawling landscape that hosts both Brown and American White Pelicans, especially in the colder months. The park’s vast wetlands offer an ideal setting for pelican sightings amidst a backdrop of Florida’s unique ecosystem.
  • Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge: Located near Cape Canaveral, this refuge is another excellent spot for observing pelicans, particularly during the winter when White Pelicans join the resident Browns.
  • Tampa Bay area: The coastal and estuary areas around Tampa Bay are frequented by pelicans. Fort De Soto Park, in particular, is a hotspot for pelican activity, providing picturesque views of these birds against the backdrop of the Gulf of Mexico.

By visiting these areas, bird watchers and nature enthusiasts can marvel at the grace and beauty of Florida’s pelicans, contributing to a greater appreciation and awareness of their importance to the state’s biodiversity.


Florida’s pelicans, both the majestic American White and the resilient Brown, are integral to the state’s coastal ecosystems and cultural identity. These birds, with their distinctive feeding behaviours, nesting habits, and conservation stories, not only enrich the biodiversity of Florida but also symbolize the delicate balance between nature and human activity.

Efforts to protect their habitats and ensure their populations thrive are crucial. As stewards of the environment, it is our responsibility to safeguard these magnificent creatures and their habitats, ensuring that pelicans continue to grace Florida’s skies and waters for generations to come.

Join the discussion