The 2 Types of PELICANS Found in the United States! (2023)

Did you recently see a pelican in the United States?

types of pelicans

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 the United States, 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

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Brown skin on their giant throat patch. But breeding adults that live on the Pacific Coast have a red throat patch.
  • 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 the United States 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 map


It’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!


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

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 the United States 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

In the United States, American White Pelicans are found on freshwater inland lakes during the breeding season. As winter approaches, they migrate south and are typically found near coastlines.


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 big 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!


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 the United States?


Tell us WHERE in the COMMENTS section below!

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  1. Yes, I saw an American White Pelican flying overhead just outside Ruidoso, NM. I couldn’t believe my eyes. 5/2022.