The 2 Types of PELICANS Found in California! (2024)

Did you recently see a pelican in California?

types of pelicans in california

If so, I’m guessing you are here because you want to know more about the incredible bird you saw!

Well, figuring out which species you observed should be pretty easy. There are only TWO types of pelicans found in California, and they are pretty easy to tell apart.

Keep reading to learn about each of these two impressive birds. 🙂

#1. Brown Pelican

  • Pelecanus occidentalis

brown pelicans in california

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Breeding adults have a red throat patch. Otherwise, the throat is yellowish-gray.
  • Dark gray bodies with a white neck and pale yellow head.
  • Measures 3.5 – 5 feet in length (1 to 1.5 m) with a wingspan of 6.5 – 7.5 feet (2 to 2.3 m). The weight of adults can range from 4.4 to 11.0 lb (2 to 5 kg).

If you saw a pelican in California while sitting on a beach, it was most likely a Brown Pelican. These large birds live strictly in saltwater habitats near the ocean’s coastline. Interestingly, they rarely venture into the open ocean, choosing to stay within 20 miles of the shore.

When I’m visiting the beach, I love seeing how Brown Pelicans elegantly fly just over the water’s surface. While these water birds are common today, believe it or not, they almost went extinct in the mid-20th century due to DDT poisoning.

Brown Pelican Range Map

brown pelican range mapIt’s also a lot of fun watching Brown Pelicans hunting for fish! First, they fly high into the sky and then plunge aggressively headfirst into the water. These dives are meant to stun the surrounding fish, which then are scooped up with their enormous throat pouch and swallowed whole.

Check out the below video to learn more about their insane dives!

YouTube video

Don’t bother listening for them, as Brown Pelicans are mostly silent creatures. However, you may hear loud popping sounds when they are defending their nests, which are made when they sharply snap their bills together!

And lastly, they birds live a long time. The oldest Brown Pelican on record was 43 years of age!

#2. American White Pelican

white pelicans in california

Identifying Characteristics:

  • GIANT white pelican with a long neck and long bill.
  • Yellow patch at the base of the bill that wraps around their eyes.
  • Breeding adults have an odd plate that sticks up from the end of the bill.

It’s hard to miss an American White Pelican in California due to its massive size!

They typically weigh between 11 and 20 pounds (5.0 – 9.1 kg), but it’s their wingspan that is most impressive. When fully spread, the wings measure over 9 feet (2.7 m) from tip to tip, which is the second widest in North America, behind the California Condor.

American White Pelican Range Map

white pelican range map

American White Pelicans are found in California near coastlines and large freshwater lakes.

These large birds look especially magnificent while in flight! Their wide wingspans allow them to soar gracefully for long distances high in the sky. If you see them flying in a V-formation, it’s hard not to stop and stare as they almost look prehistoric.

These pelicans don’t dive like Brown Pelicans to catch fish but instead use their neck pouches to scoop them up. In fact, individuals commonly work together to herd fish to shallow areas to make them easier to catch. Check out the strategy below!

YouTube video

Interestingly, chicks that are still INSIDE the egg can squawk to convey discomfort if conditions become too hot or too cold! Otherwise, adults are generally silent.

And just as a size reference, if you see them together, American White Pelicans are about TWICE the size of Brown Pelicans!

pelican species

Have you seen either of these pelican species before in California?

Tell us WHERE in the COMMENTS section below!

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  1. Four white pelicans just landed in one of our lakes here at The Legends Golf Course in Temecula, CA. They show up every year and stay for a while, then disappear. Absolutely gorgeous creatures!

  2. I live within walking distance of Clear Lake, in Lake County California, where thousands of White Pelicans and Snow Geese, from the Arctic Circle, spend their winters, partly because of the huge amount of fish living in the lake, where fishing with a fishing license is 24/7 and 365days every year.

  3. I have photographed a lot of pelicans in the past year. We have great Americans at our wildlife refuge in Willows, CA. I have photographed the brown pelicans in San Francisco and Point Reyes, CA. I was looking up information on the brown pelicans because a Point Reyes resident told me that that the Galapago pelicans migrate to the area every year. I haven’t been able to verify this.