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  • Katherine Dudley Hoehn

Pelicans of Amelia Island

Updated: Oct 3, 2019

This began as a Brown Pelican post, but I couldn’t write about Brown Pelicans without comparing them to their relatives, American White Pelicans. The need to be inclusive created a lengthier post.

one dozen brown pelicans lined up on dock outside Atlantic Seafood in Fernandina Beach
Brown Pelicans outside Atlantic Seafood in Fernandina Beach

Brown Pelicans have been called “Florida’s most distinctive and widely recognized bird.” Because their color varies at different stages of their lives, I always thought that there were many different kinds of pelicans in my home state of Florida. I was wrong.

In North America, we see only two species of pelecanus, American White and Brown, unless a few foreigners stray from their natural habitats. Pelicans apparently haven’t changed a lot over 40 million years. My plumber, a native Bostonian who moved south reluctantly, refers to Florida as “Jurassic Park.” His dislike of my home has more to do with the mostly-Jurassic alligators, snakes and lizards than our lovely pelecanus. Personally, I love all of our prehistoric-looking critters.

White Pelicans on a sandbar with other small birds, near Little Talbot Island, south of Amelia Island, Florida
White Pelicans near Little Talbot Island, south of Amelia Island. Note the ridge on their beaks, indicative of mating season.

True snowbirds, American White Pelicans migrate north from Fernandina Beach and other southern places, after spending December to March enjoying southern hospitality. While they are here, they are not as social as the Brown Pelicans, preferring to spend their time in more remote locations where they are seen less often and move away when humans draw near. Brown Pelicans may migrate north, but many prefer to become permanent southern residents, which is completely understandable.

Brown Pelicans are the ones we see diving into the ocean, from 20-30 feet above, for fish. In Fernandina Beach, they also loiter on the docks outside Atlantic Seafood (at Ash Street on the Amelia River; no website) waiting for the spoils. Their numbers have faced challenges since the early 1900’s when they were hunted for their feathers. Thank you President Theodore Roosevelt for establishing Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, in Sebastian Inlet near Vero Beach, Florida, to protect them. When DDT, banned in the 1970’s, was in rampant use, Brown Pelicans were disappearing, especially in the Pelican State, Louisiana. The population of these exclusively marine dandies is alive and well, as our island visitors see on every shore.

Adult pelicans do not speak; only the young do. They are noisy, making loud grunts and screams, which comes as no surprise to human parents. Unlike many avian kin, the adult male and female plumage is equally lovely.

In my research, and time spent photographing Brown Pelicans and American White Pelicans, I found four of their different characteristics particularly interesting.

brown pelicans on a dock
Brown Pelicans - varying colors depending on age and breeding season


Brown Pelicans are predominantly brown as juveniles. I would describe adults as more grey-brown and white with some yellow and brown on the back of their long necks and heads. Their plumage varies with age and whether or not they are in mating season:

1. First year juveniles: dark brown above, white underparts;

2. Second year: dark breast and belly and dull brown head and neck;

3. Breeding adult (more than two years old): dark body feathers, reddish brown on sides and back of neck and white and yellow on top of the head; and

4. “Post-nuptual” or nonbreeding adults: white feathers replace the rich brown neck feathers they had during courting.

American White Pelicans are mostly all white except with the same black outer feathers like the rest of the world's pelicans (except Brown Pelicans). The color of their feathers does not change much as they age or during breeding, except that “chick-feeding” adults get a speckled or grayish head and foreneck. The bills, legs and feet of the American White Pelicans are bright orange when breeding, becoming more yellow after breeding season. Another interesting difference is that the upper bill (mandible) has a knot or fibrous plate during breeding season.


Brown Pelicans on the East and Gulf Coasts build nests in trees and bushes, with material gathered by the males and presented to the females for construction. Their nests of 2-3 eggs aren’t particularly tidy and are described as “bulky” and “flimsy-looking.”

American White Pelicans build large mounds on the ground, elevating their 2 or 3 eggs. I didn’t find any mention of the male and female roles in nest building.

many pelicans on a sandbar showing one brown very small pelican with large white pelicans
One of these pelicans is not like the others. Brown Pelicans are much smaller than American White Pelicans.


American White Pelicans average 62” long with a 108” wing span.

Brown Pelicans are 48” long on average and their wings span about 84” .


American White Pelicans don’t dive for their food. They open their bills and dip them into the water while swimming, often in groups that herd the fish together.

Brown Pelicans locate their food from above the water and dive, opening their pouches as they hit the water and then capture small fish.

White Pelicans and Brown Pelicans on Amelia Island and in Fernandina Beach

pelican with injured feet
This is "Stubbs." He was named by the employees of Atlantic Seafood, due to his disability. He is strong and healthy and gets a little extra attention.

Brown Pelicans are easy to spot. In Fernandina Beach, the most human-friendly wait for handouts at Atlantic Seafood (10 Ash Street; no website), which is also my favorite place to buy fresh shrimp and fish. Any Florida seaside or riverside visit will include Brown Pelican sightings, especially on waterside perches (posts, docks or other vertical objects), floating in the ocean, flying in formation above the ocean or plunging beak-first into the water. It would be impossible to visit our island, or any coastal place in Florida, and fail to see some.

If you want to see American White Pelicans around Amelia Island, you must hurry. They will soon head north and will not return until the end of the year with all of the human snowbirds. I have seen them on the Amelia River while on boat or kayak trips with Amelia Adventuresor on Amelia River Cruises and by kayak from Kayak Amelia, paddling south on Simpsons Creek to where it meets the Fort George River. They are also occasionally on the waterfront north of Centre Street in Fernandina Beach.

White or brown, our pelicans are delightful creatures with funny faces, expressive eyes and bulky-looking round bodies. They are well adapted to southern life, and we are so lucky to have them.

Brown Pelicans on the Amelia River


Books on my shelf

· National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America

· The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds

· Florida’s Birds: A handbook and reference, by Herbert W. Kale, II and David S. Maehr

· Reference Atlas to the Birds of North America, National Geographic

· Where the Birds Are: The 100 best birdwatching spots in North America, National Wildlife Federation

· The SIBLEY Guide to Birds, National Audubon Society

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