Periodic Status Review for the Brown Pelican (2022)


Published: September 2022

Pages: 28

Author(s): Derek W. Stinson

Executive Summary

The Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) was removed from the state endangered list in 2016. As required in WAC 220‐610‐110, this document reviews the status of the Brown Pelican in Washington five years after removal from state‐listing as endangered, threatened, or sensitive. The Pacific coast and Gulf of Mexico populations were delisted by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service under the Endangered Species Act in 2009. These populations were listed as federally endangered in 1970 in response to a DDT‐related population crash of the southern California breeding colonies and the Gulf of Mexico population due to Endrin and other toxins.

The Brown Pelicans present seasonally in Washington belong to the California subspecies (P. o. californicus). They nest on islands in the Gulf of California and along the coast of Baja California in Mexico, north to Channel Islands National Park in southern California. California Brown Pelicans disperse north seasonally along the Pacific coast from nesting areas in search of food, with small numbers reaching as far as southern British Columbia. Birds occur in Washington’s coastal waters, mainly from April through November with a peak typically in late July to early September; their numbers decline in October and November with the onset of stormy weather. The total metapopulation of California Brown Pelicans was estimated at 70,000 breeding pairs in 2006.

Brown Pelicans require secure night roosts and loafing sites where they can dry and preen their plumage after feeding because their feathers become water‐logged. In Washington, Brown Pelicans gather in roosts on sandy islands, exposed shoals, and a few artificial structures in the Columbia River, Grays Harbor, and Willapa Bay estuaries, and rocky islands off the coast of the Olympic Peninsula. East Sand Island, Oregon, in the Columbia River estuary has been the largest night roost for Brown Pelicans in the region, where their annual peak numbers increased markedly from <100 during 1979‐1986 to a high of >16,000 in 2009. Peak numbers have since declined, with 5,282 in 2016, and 3,000‐3,500 each year since. The reasons for this decline are uncertain, but likely relate to forage fish abundance here and in their breeding areas.

California Brown Pelicans feed primarily on small schooling fishes, including Pacific Sardines, Northern Anchovies, and Pacific Mackerel. The steady increase in Brown Pelican numbers in Washington from 1987‐ 2011, was likely due to cyclic changes in ocean conditions that affect forage fish abundance, and perhaps the recovery of nesting colonies in the Southern California Bight. Natural fluctuations in ocean conditions and forage fish abundance caused a crash in sardine and anchovy populations in the pelican’s southern breeding areas and led to three consecutive years of extremely poor reproductive success. Other factors affecting populations include incidental capture in fishing nets and fisheries impacts on forage fish in the Gulf of California, unprecedented ocean warming, toxic algae blooms, and climate change. Although climate change and other factors present uncertainty about future population trends, Brown Pelicans still occur seasonally in Washington and they are not immediately threatened.

The Brown Pelican was removed from the state‐endangered list in 2016 and we do not recommend reconsidering that decision at this time. Brown Pelicans are protected from ‘take’ by federal law under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and are a ‘protected wildlife’ species by state law. Because Brown Pelicans concentrate at terrestrial communal roosts, particularly at night, they remain a Priority Species of the Priority Habitats and Species program (PHS) due to these vulnerable aggregations.

Suggested citation

Stinson, D. W. 2022. Draft periodic status review for the Brown Pelican in Washington. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Olympia, Washington. 19 + iv pp.

Related documents

Draft documents

Draft documents are provided for informational purposes only. Drafts may contain factual inaccuracies and may not reflect current WDFW policy.

Related content