Special Status Species
(Pelecanus occidentalis californicus)
California Brown Pelican Common name: California Brown Pelican
Scientific name: Pelecanus occidentalis californicus
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Listing Status
Endangered Species Act (?)
Status: Endangered
Critical Habitat: Not designated
Recovery Plan: Released in 19831
Five Year Status Review: In progress2

Migratory Bird Treaty Act (?)
Status: Protected

California Endangered Species Act (?)
Status: Endangered

California Department of Fish and Game (?)
Status: Fully Protected

California Natural Diversity Database (?)

Geographic Range

The Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) inhabits the Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific coasts of North and Central America, the northern coasts of South America, and islands in the Caribbean (Figure 1). The California subspecies (Pelecanus occidentalis californicus) ranges in the non-breeding season along the Pacific coast of North America from Vancouver Island, British Columbia in the north to El Salvador in the south (Figure 1).1 They are most abundant in the Gulf of California, along the Pacific coast of Baja California and along the California coast. In California the bulk of wintering populations are found at the California Channel Islands and along the mainland coast from Point Conception to Morro Bay and from Monterey Bay to Bodega Bay.3 California Brown Pelicans (CBP) rarely occur inland, except at the Salton Sea (Figure 1).4

The breeding range of the CBP extends from the Channel Islands in the north southward to Isla Ixtapa, Guerrero, Mexico (Figure 2A).1 Breeding colonies off southern California and northwestern Baja California, in the Southern California Bight (SCB), include Anacapa Island, Santa Barbara Island, Islas Coronado, Islas Todos Santos, and Isla San Martin (Figure 2B).1 Over the last century, in the SCB nesting colonies were found consistently only on Anacapa Island and Islas Coronado.1,5 Nesting was re-established on Santa Barbara Island in 1980 and has occurred every year since 1985.6 Breeding on other islands in the SCB is sporadic. Breeding was observed at Scorpion Rock off Santa Cruz Island in 1972, 1973, and 1975 and on Prince Island off San Miguel Island in 1910 and 1939.1 Nesting ceased on Todos Santos in the 1920s and on San Martin in 1974 because of increased levels of human disturbance and the presence of feral animals.1 However, in recent years (since 1999 on San Martin and 2004 on Todos Santos Sur) small breeding efforts have been found on both islands.7


California Brown Pelicans (CBP) occur in coastal habitats of the MBNMS. Major and minor roosts in the MBNMS are listed in Table 1 and shown in Figure 3. Small nesting efforts with limited breeding success occurred sporadically on Bird Island at Pt. Lobos between 1927-1966.8 Nesting appears to have occurred that far north only during periods of long-term ocean warming.5 Nest building and copulation, was observed at Bird Island in 2000, but no eggs were laid.9 Nesting behavior that is not followed by breeding is fairly common at winter roosts, particularly among sub-adults.10

Figure 1. Distribution of the Brown Pelican in North and Central America and the western Caribbean. The dashed lines indicate the limits of post-breeding dispersal. This species also is a resident in the eastern Caribbean, along the coast of Ecuador, and in the Galápagos Islands.12
Download full-size figures (1.1 MB PDF).

Figure 2. Map showing (A) the breeding populations and range of the California Brown Pelican and (B) the Southern California Bight region indicating the location of past and present California Brown Pelican nesting colonies (SBI = Santa Barbara Island).1
Download full-size figures (1.1 MB PDF).

Figure 3. California Brown Pelican roosts observed in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary during aerial surveys completed in the fall of 1998, 1999, and 2000.15
Download full-size figures (1.1 MB PDF).

Table 1. The number of California Brown Pelicans observed at roosts in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary during aerial surveys completed in the fall of 1998, 1999, and 2000.15 The highest and lowest numbers observed at each roost are shown. Roosts are listed from North to South. Names in italics identify sites that were listed as important roosts by Briggs and colleagues in 1983.11

Roost 1998-2000
Rodeo Lagoon 0-277
Bird Rock, Pt. Bonita 325-1262
Seal Rocks, San Francisco 13-1003
Mussel Rock 0-40
Devil's Slide/Pt. San Pedro 177-602
Pillar Point Harbor 460-787
Seal and Eel Rocks, San Mateo Co. 64-218
Pigeon Pt/Martin's Creek Rock 17-93
Gazos Creek 12-77
Año Nuevo Island 1388-5229
Año Nuevo Mainland 38-1438
Greyhound Rock 0-233
Wilder State Beach 3-115
Santa Cruz Point Rocks 38-280
Santa Cruz Wharf 0-96
Black Point 0-198
Cement Ship Pier 55-79
Pajaro River mouth 23-695
Moss Landing Wildlife Management Area 449-1189
Elkhorn Slough NERR 449-1189
Moss Landing Harbor 0-42
Salinas River mouth 165-1086
Monterey Harbor & Jetty 95-235
Point Piños & Hopkins Rock 20-67
Bird and Seal Rocks 74-266
Pescadero Rock 172-348
Carmel River 0-160
Point Lobos Rocks (including Bird Island) 461-2519
Plaskett Rocks 58-203
Cape San Martin Rock 50-787
La Cruz Rock 68-103
Point Piedras Blancas 84-377
Rocks S of Pt. Piedras Blancas 114-275

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CBP forage in shallow estuarine and inshore waters. They are most common within 20 km of mainland coasts and offshore islands, though they can be seen up to 75 km from the nearest land.3,11 Oceanographic features that attract foraging CBP include fronts with sharp thermal gradients and regions of coastal upwelling.3,12 Pelicans make extensive use of breakwaters, jetties, pilings, sandbars, cliffs and offshore rocks for daytime roosting. Only a few daytime roosts are used for roosting at night. Generally nocturnal roosts are surrounded on all sides by water, a feature that helps to protect the birds from human disturbance and mammalian predators.13

CBP nests are built on the ground or in low shrubs, usually in the middle or upper parts of steep rocky slopes and high bluff edges of relatively small islands in southern California, Baja California, and the Gulf of California. Along the Mexican mainland (in Sinaloa and Nayarit), pelicans primarily nest on mangrove islands and coastal wetlands in mangrove trees.1 Preferred nesting habitats are free from mammalian predators and human disturbance, and have a consistent food supply within 30-50 km of the colony.1


In the Sanctuary, this species frequents coastal waters and rarely occurs in waters deeper than the shelf break (Figure 4).14 Areas with a broad continental shelf (e.g., between Monterey and Pt. Año Nuevo) are especially important foraging areas for this species and are areas where this species is common year-round (Figure 4).14 The timing of peak at-sea density along the central coast correlates with the timing of peak mean sea surface temperature south of Pt. Reyes.11 However, pelicans appear to concentrate foraging effort in areas where plumes of cool, upwelled water intrude into warmer water.11

Offshore rocks, inaccessible rocky shores, harbors and river mouths are the roost sites most consistently used by the CBPs in the MBNMS (Figure 3, Table 1).15 In coast-wide surveys of central and northern California in 1998-2000, Elkhorn Slough was the only estuary that was consistently used by large numbers of pelicans.15 In recent years, roosting pelicans have shifted distribution in the Elkhorn Slough from the shallow ponds and interior levees in the Moss Landing Wildlife Area to the exterior levees along the north and south backs of Elkhorn Slough.13,16

Figure 4. These maps shows the density of the California Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis californicus) in the Monterey Bay, Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuaries during three seasons: Upwelling season (March 15 - August 14); Oceanic season (August 15 - November 14); and Davidson Current season (November 15 - March 14). These data are provided by the California Biogeographic Assessment prepared for the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary's Management Plan. 14
Download full-size figures (1.1 MB PDF).

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Migration and Movements

Most adults are found on or near nesting colonies during the breeding season. Adults may shift breeding sites on a given island as well as between breeding islands (e.g. between Anacapa and Los Coronados) in consecutive years. Changes in the distribution of prey appears to be one reason for adults to move to a different nesting location – adults are limited to foraging within 30-50 km of the nesting colony.1,5,17

At the end of the breeding season, adults from colonies in the SCB may remain in the breeding area, but many disperse north to coastal waters along the central and northern California coast. The northernmost extent of the non-breeding range extends to Washington and southern British Columbia during long-term ocean-warming periods and contracts to northern California and Oregon during cool water periods .18 The number of CBP off California during the non-breeding season is augmented by tens of thousands of migrants dispersing from breeding colonies in Mexico.3,5 Many of the fledglings tagged at breeding colonies in the Gulf of California have been re-sighted in the SCB.5 The extent of daily foraging trips during the non-breeding season is limited by the need to return each evening to suitable roosting habitat.3 However, the number of pelicans using any given roost is highly variable from day-to-day as well as year-to-year, suggesting that individuals are moving frequently among different roosting locations.11


As the size of the CBP population has increased over the last three decades, migrants have been arriving in the Sanctuary earlier in the year; currently, they begin to arrive as early as April (Figure 5).9,19 Most migrants will leave the Sanctuary by December or January (Figure 5).11,19 Most CBP in the MBNMS are migrants, but some non-breeding adults and juveniles are present year-round.

Croll and colleagues20 studied the movement pattern of a single CBP radio-tagged in Monterey Bay. This pelican spent most of its time roosting - 68% during the day and 100% at night. When active, the pelican traveled between roosts in Monterey Bay, Carmel Bay and Big Sur before heading south beyond the study area. Jaques and Anderson13 found similar activity patterns at Moss Landing Wildlife Management Area, Año Nuevo Island and Southeast Farallon Island. Activity appeared to be generally diurnal with many birds leaving the roost within the first few hours after sunrise and returning in the late afternoon before sunset. A varying number of individuals were present at the roost throughout the day. A large number of departures from the roost on nights with full moons suggest that pelicans are capable of nocturnal foraging under certain light conditions.13

Figure 5. Mean monthly density of California Brown Pelicans occurring in Monterey Bay based on 34 surveys from 1999-2001.19
Download full-size figures (1.1 MB PDF).

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Prior to 1969, scant breeding data exists for the SCB colonies. Maximum abundance on Anacapa Island and Los Coronados was estimated roughly at about 5,000 pairs at each island group.1,7 The usual number of breeding pairs appears to be about 2,500 to 3,000.1 In 1969, from a minimum of 1,272 nests, only 4 young were fledged successfully.1 Similar levels of reproductive failure occurred in 1970-73 on Anacapa and Los Coronados. This near complete reproductive failure was cause by thin-shelled eggs that collapsed during incubation.1 Eggshell thinning was caused by ingestion of forage fish with high levels of DDT residues.21,22 After successive years of near reproductive failure, the number of nesting birds dropped to a low of 110 pairs at Los Coronados in 1971 and 247 pairs at Anacapa in 1973.5

However, following a number of regulatory changes in the early 1970s, which drastically decreased the input of DDT into the SCB, fledging rates and nesting population sizes in the SCB showed generally increasing trends in the late-1970s.21,22 In 1980 population sizes reached 2,244 and 1,515 pairs on Anacapa Island and Los Coronados, respectively.5 This was the first year that the SCB breeding population exceeded 3,000 pairs since at least the early 1960s. This increase was due to both immigration of birds from breeding colonies to the south and internal recruitment.5 The breeding population in California continued to increase dramatically through the late 1980s.23

Since the 1990s, breeding effort in the SCB has fluctuated widely, due largely to variable food supplies and El Niño events (see Figure 6 for trends at Anacapa Island), with an annual 1985-2002 mean of about 6,000 pairs.6,17,23,24 The number of breeding pairs in the SCB has exceeded the criteria for delisting (5-year mean > 3,000 pairs) since 1985, but the desired productivity rates (5-year mean > 0.70 fledglings/nesting attempt to downgrade to threatened and > 0.9. to delist) have not been met.1,6,23 The productivity of SCB colonies is consistently lower than that of colonies in the Gulf of California.1,23

The size of the California Brown Pelican population has been estimated to be approximately 50,000 to 60,000 breeding birds and approximately 150,000 total birds, including non-breeders.12,25 Breeding colonies in the SCB, the southwestern coast of Baja California, the Gulf of California, and the mainland coast of Mexico comprise 10%, 9%, 68%, and 13%, respectively, of the total breeding population.7 Breeding colonies in the Gulf of California have been relatively stable (supporting 35,000-40,000 pairs) as long as they have been studied (since 1971), though there may be some declines in vulnerable colonies that are subject to human disturbance. There are no recent data for the southwest Baja California coastal and mainland Mexico populations, but the two areas historically (prior to 1983) supported about 5,000 and 7,500 pairs, respectively.26

The number of migrants visiting the Salton Sea has increased dramatically since the 1970s; there were even a few breeding attempts in the mid-1990s, but none have been reported since that time.26 The Salton Sea is currently utilized as a roosting area by non-breeding birds (juveniles and sub-adults) between breeding seasons. The Salton Sea birds are probably insignificant to the total population of CBP, but they could eventually become a new breeding population.25


CBP are present year-round in Sanctuary waters, particularly in Monterey Bay, but their numbers increase beginning in April and peak from August-November (Figure 5).9,19 Abundance in the MBNMS varies from year-to-year and appears to be influenced by breeding success, oceanographic conditions, and prey abundance.11 CBP are consistently found in high numbers between Pt. Lobos and Pt. Año Nuevo (Figure 4).14 Abundance in areas to the north of Monterey Bay is more variable; higher numbers are associated with warm-water condition (Figure 7).14

The number of CBP in the MBNMS declined in the 1960 and early 1970s and then increased in the late-1970s and early 1980s following population trends at SCB breeding colonies.28 Numbers declined again in the mid to late-1980s due to a strong El Niño that significantly decreased prey availability in the coastal waters of the Sanctuary.9 Since the late 1980s, the number of CBP in the Sanctuary has shown a general increasing trend.14

Three aerial surveys of CBP at roost sites in central and northern California were completed in the fall of 1998, 1999, and 2000.15 A total of 16,286, 10,144, and 10,859 pelicans were counted in 1998, 1999, and 2000, respectively, at roosts in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Large numbers of pelicans were observed at many roosts in the MBNMS, particularly Año Nuevo Island (up to 5,299), Pajaro River (up to 695), Moss Landing Wildlife Area/Elkhorn Slough (up to 1,231), Salinas River (up to 1,086), Bird Island/Pt. Lobos (up to 2,519), and Cape San Martin (up to 787).15 Numbers at these large roosts, as well as the various smaller roosts in the Sanctuary, are highly variable both within seasons and between years because birds tend move frequently following prey.

Figure 6. Temporal trends in the number of nesting attempts and the number of fledglings produced by California Brown Pelicans on West Anacapa Island and Scorpion Rock.50
Download full-size figures (1.1 MB PDF).
Figure 7. These maps show the density of the California Brown Pelican in the Monterey Bay, Gulf of the Farallones, and Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuaries during El Niño and La Niña events. Densities are much higher in central California during warm-water periods (El Niño). Data provided by the California Biogeographic Assessment prepared for the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary's Management Plan.14
Download full-size figures (1.1 MB PDF).

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Natural History
Click here to view the natural history information of this species.


Oil Spills: The Santa Barbara Channel is the site of offshore petroleum drilling and an oil spill from platforms or tankers could have a devastating effect on both the breeding population and post-breeding migrants from colonies in Mexico. Oil pollution from tanker traffic is also a threat to pelicans foraging along the central California coast. An estimated 123 CBP were killed along the central California coast during the 1997-98 Point Reyes Tarball Incidents.30 Ten oiled pelicans were recovered after the 1998 Command oil spill, also along the central California coast.31 Sixteen oiled CBP were recovered following the January 2005 “Ventura Oiled Bird Incident”.32 About 185 pelicans were affected in the American Trader oil spill off Huntington Beach in 1990; a sample of CBP from that spill that were treated and released after exposure to oil showed decreased survivorship, movement and reproductive activity.33

Depletion of fish populations: Pacific sardines and northern anchovies are the most important food items for Brown Pelicans in the SCB, especially during the breeding season.34 Commercial over-harvesting of these fish species has occurred repeatedly during the last century, with potential affects on pelican reproductive rates.35 Low prey availability can substantially reduce reproductive effort and breeding success of CBP; pelican productivity is lower when food resources are scarce and higher when food supplies are plentiful.17,24

Human disturbance: Human disturbance has decreased nesting success on Scorpion Rock (near Santa Cruz Island), Islas Coronado, and in the Gulf of California and it was the primary cause of extirpation of the breeding colonies on Islas Todos Santos and Isla San Martin.1,7,36 Anderson found that nest abandonment rates increased on Isla Coronado Norte with proximity to human activity; a safe distance was 600 m or more.37 Pelicans roosting at Moss Landing Wildlife Area (MLWA) flushed at a mean distance of 220 m when approached by humans on foot.13 Human disturbance to CBP in the Moss Landing area (including Elkhorn Slough and MLWA) was extremely high in 1999-2000 compared to levels measured in 1986-1991.16 Kayaks and boats accounted for 77% of all disturbances in 1999-2000.The repeated flushing of roosting birds substantially increases energetic demands and may ultimately cause birds to abandon roosting sites. Nest abandonment rates of over 50% at Anacapa Island in 1999 were linked to relatively high light levels from bright flood lights used by the commercial squid fishery near the island during the months of January through April.38

Entanglement in fishing gear: Rescue workers at oil spills find that a large number of pelicans are tangled up in and injured by fishing tackle. Franson and colleagues found that 3% of Brown Pelicans in rehabilitation centers had ingested lead fishing weights and an additional 55% were found with ingested, embedded or entangled fishing tackle.39 Entanglement with monofilament and fishing tackle has been a problem with newly-fledged birds around colony sites.1

Chemical pollution: Pelicans are extremely sensitive to organochlorine pesticide residues in forage fish, which can result in eggshell thinning and reproductive failure.21,22 Elevated levels of selenium in pelicans at the Salton Sea may make pelicans more susceptible to disease.40

Disease, parasitism and poisoning: An estimated 500-1,000 pelicans died in the fall/winter of 1987/88 due to Erysipeles, a bacterial infection resulting from overcrowding at fish disposal areas in Monterey Harbor.13,41 Avian botulism outbreaks have killed over 1,500 CBP since 1996 at the Salton Sea.12 In 1991, 43 CBP died from domoic acid poisoning following a bloom of the diatom Pseudonitzschia australis in California.42 Domoic acid poisoning was associated with unusually high mortality rates of chicks, adults and sub-adults at Anacapa Island in 2002.23


Collisions with trains : Trains travel at high speed past the “south marsh” portion of the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve. This stretch of tracks has been monitored periodically since 2001. The carcasses of 23 and 6 CBP were found in 2001 and 2002, respectively.43 No pelican carcasses were found along the tracks in 2003 or 2004.

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Conservation and Research

Brown Pelican populations across the U.S. experienced drastic population declines between the late 1950s and early 1970s due to widespread environmental contamination from organochlorine pesticides, such as DDT. In the SCB, ingestion of forage fish containing high levels of DDT residues caused pelicans to lay thin-shelled eggs that broke during incubation. DDT levels were especially high in southern California coastal waters due to discharge of effluent from a DDT manufacturing plant into the Los Angeles County sewage system. This discharge was curtailed in response to regulatory action beginning in 1970; in addition, the Environmental Protection Agency banned the use of DDT in the U.S. in 1973. Following these changes, there was a sharp decline of DDT input into the SCB marine environment and nesting success of Brown Pelicans in the SCB began to improve as mean eggshell thickness increased over time.1,21,22

In response to the widespread declines of Brown Pelican populations throughout the country, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) designated the Brown Pelican as “endangered” in 1970 (under a law that preceded the Endangered Species Act of 1973). FWS also recognizes this species as being a “migratory non-game bird of management concern”. All bird species that migrate between the U.S. and Canada or Mexico are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) of 1918. The MBTA prohibits pursuing, hunting, shooting, wounding, killing, trapping, capturing, or collecting any migratory bird, nest, or eggs without a permit from the FWS. The MBTA does not protect nesting or wintering habitat.

Under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the FWS is the primary agency responsible for the management and recovery of Brown Pelicans. The FWS is required to create a recovery plan and designate critical habitat for all listed species. Critical habitat has not been designated. A recovery plan for the California subspecies was released by FWS in 1983. The objectives of the recovery plan were to: 1) maintain existing populations in Mexico; 2) assure long-term protection of adequate food supplies and essential nesting, roosting, and offshore habitat throughout the range; and 3) restore population size and productivity to self-sustaining levels in the SCB. In May of 2006, the FWS announced the initiation of a status review of the California Brown Pelican and a 5-year review of the Brown Pelican throughout its range.2 The FWS is preparing these reviews simultaneously. The reviews will help determine whether this species and subspecies should be either down-listed or removed from the Endangered Species List.

Some of the management actions and monitoring programs needed to achieve the objectives of the 1983 recovery plan are being carried out by FWS and other federal agencies (see "State” and “Other" section below for a summary of on-going research and management projects by non-federal agencies). On-going research projects and resource management at the federal level includes:

The National Park Service (NPS) protects the breeding colonies at West Anacapa and Santa Barbara Islands as part of the Channel Islands National Park. West Anacapa Island is designated as a Research Natural Area by the NPS and is closed to the public; it was established to protect the pelican nesting area from human intrusion and disturbance. The NPS monitors CBP breeding success on Santa Barbara Island as part of their on-going seabird monitoring program (Contact: Kate Faulkner, Channel Island National Park). The monitoring program determines annual productivity and population size of this nesting population.

Command Oil Spill Seabird Restoration (Contact: Charlene Andrade, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). Under the federal Oil and Pollution Act and the California Spill Prevention and Response Act, the parties responsible for the Command oil spill agreed in a settlement to fund projects to restore the natural resources that were damaged by the spill. The following two projects, scheduled to begin in 2006, will help restore California Brown Pelican populations in and the around the MBNMS:

  1. Brown Pelican Roost Site Enhancement and Protection: This project will restore critical non-breeding pelican habitat along the central California coast. This project will focus primarily on reducing human disturbance to roosting pelicans at Breakwater Island in San Francisco Bay.
  2. Brown Pelican Entanglement Reduction Education and Outreach Program: The purpose of the project is to reduce entanglement of CBP in fishing gear. This project will target education outreach efforts (e.g., signs and brochures) at fishing piers and wharfs in central California. One known location with a pelican entanglement problem is the Santa Cruz Pier.

On Jan 11, 2000, President Clinton established by proclamation the California Coastal National Monument (CCNM). The CCNM encompasses all inappropriate or unreserved islands, rocks, exposed reefs, and pinnacles above mean high tide within 12 nm of the shoreline of the State of California (it does not include major islands such as the Channel Islands, the Farallon Islands, or the islands of San Francisco Bay). The purpose of the CCNM is to protect these geological structures as habitat for marine plants and animals, such as the California Brown Pelican. Appropriation, injury, destruction, or removal of any feature of the monument and settlement upon any of the lands in the monument are prohibited. The Bureau of Land Management, in cooperation with the California Department of Parks and Recreation and the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG), manages the CCNM.


Beach COMBERS - Coastal Ocean Mammal and Bird Education and Research Surveys (Project Leader: Hannah Nevins, Moss Landing Marine Laboratories). In 1997 the MBNMS began a beach survey program using trained volunteers to survey beached marine birds and mammals monthly at selected sections of beaches throughout the Monterey Bay area. Currently, the program monitors 45 km of beaches in the MBNMS. The program is a collaborative project between MLML, MBNMS, and other state and research institutions, with the specific goal of using deposition of beach cast carcasses as an index of the health of the sanctuary. This program obtains information on the rates of stranding for all species. In addition, mortality events are detected, causes of mortality events are assessed, and oil and tar deposition is monitored. Data from this monitoring program assist the MBNMS in the early detection of mortality events triggered by natural and anthropogenic environmental perturbations such as red tides and oil spills.


The California Brown Pelican is “fully protected” under the Fish and Game Code (§4700), which means that this species cannot be taken or possessed in California without a permit from the Fish and Game Commission. In addition, the California subspecies was designated as “endangered” under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA) in 1971. Under CESA, the CDFG is responsible for conserving, protecting, restoring, and enhancing endangered and threatened species and their habitat in California. On-going research projects and resource management at the state level includes:

Moss Landing Habitat Enhancement Project (Lead Agency: CDFG). The proposed project consists of reconfiguring existing salt ponds and accompanying water distribution systems at the Moss Landing Wildlife Area to provide maximum wildlife and habitat values using minimal personnel and a minimal amount of water manipulation. The project was designed to provide a variety of habitats for nesting, roosting, and foraging birds throughout the year and it should improve the quality and safety of roosting habitat for pelicans. This project was completed in 2006.44

Marine Bird and Mammal Aerial Surveys (Principal Investigator: Breck Tyler, CDFG-Office of Spill Prevention and Response). Since the mid-1990s, data on the distribution and abundance of marine birds and mammals in coastal waters have been collected monthly via low-level aerial surveys. The area surveyed extends from the surfline to the continental shelf and stretches from Big Sur to Half Moon Bay. The CDFG-Office of Spill Prevention and Response sponsor this on-going project. Collaborators: U.C. Santa Cruz.

The California Brown Pelican Fledging Area prohibits entry inside the 20 fathoms (120 feet) depth contour between Frenchy’s Cove and Portuguese Rock on the north side of West Anacapa Island between January 1 and October 31 (California Code of Regulations Title 14, Chapter 11 §632). This offshore closure is part of the Anacapa Island State Marine Conservation Area (formerly the Anacapa Island Ecological Reserve).

A number of management and conservation groups (including USFWS, NPS, and Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary) supported an addition to the Market Squid Fishery Management Plan of a regulation that would reduce disturbance of pelican nesting colonies in the Channel Islands by the squid fleet (a fishery managed by CDFG). However, the California Fish and Game Commission did not include the regulation in the final version of the Management Plan.


Brown Pelicans at Vandenberg Air Force Base (Principal Investigator: Dan Robinette, Point Reyes Bird Observatory). The coastline of Vandenberg Air Force Base contains a diverse array of roosting habitat used by non-breeding pelicans, including 4 sites identified as important pelican roosts in California. The objective of this study, which began in 2001, is to gather year around information about CBP activity patterns along the coastal margin, including the effects of human disturbances on attendance patterns.

Monitoring Brown Pelicans on Anacapa Island (Principal Investigator: Frank Gress, California Institute of Environmental Studies and U.C. Davis). CBP breeding success has been monitored on West Anacapa Island since 1970. Nesting effort and reproductive success is assessed using counts of adults, nests, and chicks. Long-term data from these studies are being used to describe patterns of change over time, determine a baseline for reproductive parameters, and determine the power of detecting future trends. In 1998-2004, this monitoring program was part of the Anacapa Island Restoration Project (AIRP). The purpose of AIRP was to restore habitat for crevice-nesting seabirds by eradicating introduced black rats from Anacapa Island. Monitoring data was used to detect effects, either positive or negative, of rat eradication activities on pelican reproductive success. Studies on diet composition, feeding ecology, and the role of food resource availability on pelican productivity are underway. A study also in progress will update organochlorine levels in the SCB population and determine current mean eggshell thickness.

CIMT - Center for Integrated Marine Technologies: Wind to Whales (Contact: Andrew DeVogelaere, MBNMS). The Monterey Bay - from Pt. Año Nuevo to Pt. Lobos and out to 122°05' west longitude - is the focal region of the CIMT Wind to Whales Program. This project, which began in 1997, is an interdisciplinary collaborative research project involving scientists and engineers from UCSC, NMFS, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, Moss Landing Marine Labs, MBNMS, and Naval Postgraduate School. CIMT uses data collected via remote sensing, moorings and ship-board surveys to investigate linkages between: coastal upwelling, nutrient delivery, spatial and temporal variability in phytoplankton, and the distribution and abundance of organisms at higher trophic levels including squid, fishes, seabirds, sea turtles, pinnipeds, and whales. The location and abundance of CBP in the study area is recorded during monthly ship-board surveys.

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Research Gaps

The Recovery Plan identified information gaps and recommended research and monitoring programs to fill those gaps.1 Federal and state agencies are monitoring reproductive effort and breeding success at many colonies in the SCB. In the MBNMS, CDFG and CIMT are recording at-sea distribution and abundance. Additional research is needed in the following areas:

  • Monitor abundance at roosting sites in the MBNMS. Identify essential roosting sites, particularly nocturnal roosts. Monitor sources and levels of disturbance at each roosting location.
  • Identify the primary prey species taken during the non-breeding season. Monitor temporal and spatial variation in diet composition. Study how oceanographic conditions influence prey abundance and distribution. Identify areas of critical foraging habitat.
  • Monitor levels of exposure to toxic substances including oil, pesticides, harmful algal blooms and pathogens. Determine rates of injury and mortality at different exposure levels.
  • Employ banding and/or satellite telemetry to study the movement patterns of pelicans that use Sanctuary resources. Follow birds during the northward and southward migrations to determine the proportion Sanctuary birds that originate from different breeding colonies. Monitor local and large-scale movement pattern of birds during the non-breeding season.

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Recommended Actions
  • Support the active management of fisheries that could potentially impact the prey species of CBP (i.e., northern anchovy and Pacific sardine). The goal of management should be a balance between human use and maintaining an adequate forage reserve.
  • Reduce oil development near important breeding, roosting and foraging habitats. (Exploring for, developing, or producing oil or gas is prohibited inside the Channel Islands and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuaries)
  • Review, update and help to implement all aspects of a vessel traffic management system along the central and southern California coasts to ensure the safe transport of petroleum and other hazardous materials near CBP nesting and foraging habitat.
  • Education outreach and resource management efforts to reduce disturbance by commercial fishing operations to nesting and roosting CBP throughout California.45
  • Support an international conservation program with the Mexican government to protect the nesting colonies of CBP south of the U.S. border. These islands are the source of many of the pelicans that visit Sanctuary waters each year.
  • Enforce Sanctuary regulations that help prevent disturbance to CBP including:
    • Existing “Restricted Overflight” zones prohibit low flying aircraft (<1,000 ft) over some roosting habitat in the Sanctuary. Use education outreach efforts to decrease low flying aircraft, particularly during the months of May-December, over roosts that are not located in a restricted overflight zone.46
    • Prohibitions on discharging or depositing any material in or near Sanctuary boundaries that injures a Sanctuary resource (e.g., garbage, oil, abandoned fishing gear).47
    • Prohibitions on take or injury to seabirds protected under the MBTA.
  • Create education outreach programs to help reduce human disturbance at roosting sites, particularly roosts near human recreation areas (e.g., the Moss Landing area and the Pajaro and Salinas River mouths). Education outreach should target sources of shore-based and water-based disturbance.48,49
  • Support the education outreach efforts of the FWS to reduce entanglement of CBP in recreational fishing gear at local wharfs and piers. Continue education outreach efforts to reduce the amounts of abandoned fishing tackle in Sanctuary waters.47
  • Continue efforts (e.g., BeachCOMBERS) to locate and recover beachcast CBP and to identify the causes of mortality.

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Cited References
1. Gress F, Anderson DW (1983) California Brown Pelican recovery plan. Prepared for the Fish and Wildlife Service Endangered Species Office, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Portland, OR. Download PDF document
2. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (May 24, 2006) Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants: 90-Day Finding on a Petition to Delist the California Brown Pelican and Initiation of a 5-Year Review for the Brown Pelican. Federal Register Vol. 71:29908-29910.
3. Briggs KT, Tyler WMB, Lewis DB, Carlson DR (1987) Bird communities at sea off California: 1975 to 1983. In: Pitelka FA (ed) Studies in Avian Biology No 11. Cooper Ornithological Society, Los Angeles, p 74.
4. Shuford WD, Warnock N, Molina KC, Sturm KK (2002) The Salton Sea as critical habitat to migratory and resident waterbirds. Hydrobiologia 473:255-274.
5. Anderson DW, Gress F (1983) Status of a northern population of California Brown Pelicans. Condor 85:79-88.
6. Gress F, Martin P (2000) Brown Pelican Breeding Success in Southern California in 1995-1997, with Notes on the Experimental Use of Large-Format Aerial Photography for Monitoring. Draft Report. Prepared for the California Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
7. Gress F, Palacios E, Harvey AL, Alfaro L, Anderson DW, Gonzalez E (2005) Status of Brown Pelicans and three species of cormorants in the Mexican portion of the Southern California Bight, 2002-2003. Unpublished report prepared for U.S. Geological Survey, California Institute of Environmental Studies, Davis, CA, USA.
8. Baldridge A (1973) The status of the Brown Pelican in the Monterey region of California: past and present. Western Birds 4:93-100.
9. Roberson D (2002) Monterey Birds. Monterey Peninsula Audubon Society, Carmel, CA.
10. D. Jaques, Jaques Biological Consulting, personal communication
11. Briggs K, Tyler WB, Lewis DB, Kelly PR, Croll DA (1983) Brown Pelicans in central and northern California. Journal of Field Ornithology 54:353-373.
12. Shields MA (2002) Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis). In: Poole A, Gill F (eds) The Birds of North America, No 609. The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA, p 36.
13. Jaques DL, Anderson DW (1988) Brown pelican use of the Moss Landing Wildlife Management area: roosting behavior, habitat use, and interactions with humans. Nongame Bird and Mammal Section Report, Wildlife Management Division, Department of Fish and Game, California.
14. NOAA National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) (2003) A Biogeographic Assessment of North/Central California: To Support the Joint Management Plan Review for Cordell Bank, Gulf of the Farallones, And Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuaries; Phase I - Marine Fishes, Birds and Mammals. Prepared by NCCOS's Biogeography Team in Cooperation with the National Marine Sanctuary Program, Silver Spring, MD.
15. Strong C, Jaques D (2001) Aerial surveys of Brown Pelicans at roost sites within the Monterey Bay and Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuaries, 1998-2000. A report to the Monterey Bay NMS and Gulf of the Farallones NMS, the American Trader Oilspill Restoration Trustee Council, and the California Department of Fish and Game.
16. Jaques D, Strong C (2002) Disturbance to Brown Pelicans at Communal Roosts in Southern and Central California. Prepared by Crescent Coastal Research for the American Trader Trustee Council, California Department of Fish and Game, United States Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Astoria, OR.
17. Anderson DW, Gress F, Mais KF (1982) Brown Pelicans Pelecanus occidentalis californicus influence of food supply on reproduction. Oikos 39.
18. Jaques DL (1994) Range expansion and roosting ecology of non-breeding California Brown Pelicans. M.S. Thesis, University of California, Davis.
19. Henkel LA (2004) Seasonal abundance of marine birds in nearshore waters of Monterey Bay, California. Western Birds 35:126-146.
20. Croll D, Ballance LT, Wursig BG, Tyler WB (1986) Movements and daily activity patterns of a Brown Pelican Pelecanus occidentalis in central California. Condor 88:258-260.
21. Anderson DW, Jehl JRJ, Risebrough RW, Woods LAJ, Deweese LR, Edgecomb WG (1975) Brown Pelicans: improved reproduction off the southern California coast. Science 190(4216): 806-808.
22. Gress F (1995) Organochlorines, eggshell thinning, and productivity relationships in Brown Pelicans breeding in the Southern California Bight. Ph.D. Dissertation, University of California, Davis.
23. Gress F, Yee JL, Anderson DW, Harvey AL (2003) Breeding success of Brown Pelicans in 2002 at West Anacapa Island, California, and long-term trends in reproductive performance, 1985-2002. Unpublished Report. Prepared for the American Trader Trustee Council, Davis, CA.
24. Anderson DW, Gress F, Mais KF, Kelly PR (1980) Brown Pelicans as anchovy stock indicators and their relationships to commercial fishing. CalCOFI Report 21:54-61.
25. F. Gress, California Institute for Environmental Studies, personal communication
26. F. Gress and D. Anderson, unpublished data
28. Ainley DG (1972) Brown Pelicans in north central coastal California. California Birds 3:59-64.
29. F. Gress, unpublished data
30. Carter HR, Golightly RT (eds) (2003) Seabird injuries from the 1997-1998 Point Reyes Tarball Incidents, Vol. Unpublished report, Humboldt State University, Department of Wildlife, Arcata, California.
31. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) (2004) Command Oil Spill. Final Restoration Plan and Environmental Assessment.
32. California Department of Fish and Game - Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR)
33. Anderson DW, Gress F, Fry DM (1996) Survival and dispersal of oiled Brown Pelicans after rehabilitation and release. Marine Pollution Bulletin 32:711-718.
34. F. Gress and L. Harvey, unpublished data
35. Anderson DW, Gress F (1984) Brown pelicans and the anchovy fishery off Southern California. p 128-135 In: Nettleship DN, Sanger GA, Springer PF (eds) Marine birds: their feeding ecology and commercial fisheries relationships. Proc. Pacific Seabird Group Symp., Seattle, WA.
36. Anderson DW, Keith JO (1980). The human influence on seabird nesting success: conservation implications. Biological Conservation 18: 65-80.
37. Anderson DW (1988) Dose-response relationship between human disturbance and Brown Pelican breeding success. Wildlife Society Bulletin 16:339-345.
38. California Department of Fish and Game (2000) California Brown Pelican. The Status of Rare, Threatened, and Endangered Animals and Plants in California.
39. Franson JC, Hansen SP, Creekmore TE, Brand CJ, Evers DC, Duerr AE, DeStefano S (2003) Lead fishing weights and other fishing tackle in selected waterbirds. Waterbirds 26:345-352.
40. Bruehler G, de Peyster A (1999) Selenium and other trace metals in pelicans dying at the Salton Sea. Bulletin of Environmental Contamination & Toxicology 63:590-597.
41. Windingstad R (1991) Research center analyzes health problems of endangered species. Endangered Species Technical Bulletin 16(5):4-6.
42. Fritz L, Quilliam MA, Wright JLC, Beale AM, Work TM (1992) An outbreak of domoic acid poisoning attributed to the pennate diatom Pseudonitzschia australis. Journal of Phycology 28:439-442.
43. Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve (ESNERR), unpublished monitoring data
44. J. Cann, CDFG, personal communication
45. Addressed in part by JMPR Wildlife Disturbance Issues - Marine Mammal, Seabird and Turtle Disturbance Action Plan: Commercial Harvest Related Disturbance Strategy. Joint Management Plan Review (JMPR). Proposed Action Plans. Draft report. Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
46. Addressed in part by JMPRWildlife Disturbances Issues - Marine Mammal, Seabird and Turtle Disturbance Action Plan: Low Flying Aircraft Disturbance and Strategy. Joint Management Plan Review (JMPR). Proposed Action Plans. Draft report. Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
47. Addressed in part by JMPR Wildlife Disturbance Issues - Marine Mammal, Seabird and Turtle Disturbance Action Plan: Marine Debris Strategy. Joint Management Plan Review (JMPR). Proposed Action Plans. Draft report. Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
48. Addressed in part by JMPR Wildlife Disturbance Issues - Marine Mammal, Seabird and Turtle Disturbance Action Plan: Vessel Disturbance Strategy. Joint Management Plan Review (JMPR). Proposed Action Plans. Draft report. Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

49. Addressed in part by JMPR Wildlife Disturbance Issues - Marine Mammal, Seabird and Turtle Disturbance Action Plan: Shore Based Disturbance Strategy. Joint Management Plan Review (JMPR). Proposed Action Plans. Draft report. Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

50. Gress F, Harvey AL (2003) Reproductive performance of Brown Pelicans at West Anacapa Island, California, in 2003. Unpublished report. Prepared for the American Trader Trustee Council by the California Institute of Environmental Studies, Davis, CA.

References and Resources
Click here for images, reports, and links to other websites for this species.

Acknowledgement of Reviewers

Thank you to Franklin Gress, Deborah Jaques, and Laird Henkel for reviewing this report and providing helpful comments and corrections.

Content Last Modified: 05/2006

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