One of the best reasons to get out on a kayak when visiting Siesta Key is to experience our amazing wild bird population – up close! One of the species that locals and visitors find fascinating is the pelican, especially when you get a front-row seat to their diving and feeding behaviors. There are two species of North American pelican – brown and white varieties – and they are both seen in Florida. The pelicans are characterized much like our residents—the Brown Pelican calls Florida home year-round, but most White Pelicans spend only the winter season along our coastlines.

Pelicans are one of the world’s most recognizable birds. They are very large, with massive bills, a throat pouch, and large feet. Despite their size, air pockets in their skeleton and skin allow them to float easily, and their long wings facilitate their famous soaring.

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Fascinating Facts About Pelicans

  • Colonies of pelicans can include up to 50,000 birds. Although some species of pelican nest in trees, both the brown and white pelican tend to nest on the ground, in the sand, or in low tree branches.
  • After approximately 25 days in the nest, young pelicans form ‘creches’ of up to 100 juveniles. Incredibly, a parent has the ability to pick out its own offspring and will feed only them.
  • Although pelicans eat other animals, they are not classified as raptors or birds of prey. Pelicans primarily eat fish, but they will also eat frogs, crabs, snakes, birds, insects and even small mammals.
  • The specialized throat pouch of the adult pelican not only catches fish but also allows the bird to drain any water it scooped up before swallowing the fish.
  • Young pelicans are often seen feeding directly from their parents’ throat pouch.

The Brown Pelican

Brown Pelicans can be spotted all year, primarily in coastal areas and shallow water environments. They live in estuaries, mangrove islets and on sandbars and offshore rocks. They are often seen around jetties. Seeing these huge birds soaring overhead – and then quickly plunging straight down into the water to catch their prey – is an iconic Sarasota experience.

During the breeding season, the pelicans in this area exhibit olive brown skin on their pouch, throats, and napes. At any other time, adult Brown Pelicans have white heads and necks and pale-yellow foreheads. Their long bills are partially yellow and partially pale orange. Their bodies are grayish-brown in color. Juveniles have brown heads, necks, backs, and wings with bluish-gray beaks.

Fast Fact: Brown pelicans are typically four feet in length and weigh just over 8 pounds. Their wingspan can reach an impressive 7 feet!

Brown pelicans primarily eat sardines and herring. They famously dive for much of their food, but they will also scoop up prey in their bills when casually floating.

Brown Pelican nests are usually built on the ground and protected by geography (uninhabited islands) or in mangroves. Females build the nests, usually from leaves, pebbles, sticks, and soil. Brown pelicans give birth to 2-4 eggs that incubate for approximately a month. Did You Know? Adult pelicans are almost always silent, but youngsters will squark loudly when hungry.

The White Pelican

spotting pelicans kayaking on Siesta Key

American White Pelicans are usually seen in Florida from November to March, and they typically don’t breed here. They are large, soaring birds with the second-largest average wingspan of any North American bird.

Non-breeding adult American White Pelicans seem to be completely white until they spread their wings and fly, when black flight feathers become visible. White pelicans have yellowish skin that surrounds bluish-gray eyes, pale orange bills, pouches, and feet. Juveniles have light gray colored feathers with dark brown napes.

Breeding adult American White Pelicans have distinctly different coloring from non-breeding adults. They grow a yellow plate on their upper bills, like a horn. They still have the all-white bodies, but around their eyes, their bills, and their legs and feet become brighter orange.

Fast Fact: White pelicans are about 5 feet in length and weigh considerably more than their brown cousins – averaging about 15 pounds. Their wingspan is spectacular as well, measuring approximately 8 to 9 feet.

American White Pelicans spend their winters frequenting coastal bays, inlets, and estuaries where they forage for food in shallow water. They primarily eat fish, swimming on the surface and capturing their dinner with their huge bills. They also work with other birds strategically coordinating their efforts toward shore where gathering is easier.

Kayaking and Birdwatching with Ride and Paddle

Because some of the best local kayaking waters are also home to pelicans, paddlers often experience these majestic birds up close. To see pelicans in their natural habitat – as well as all of our other native shore birds – rent a kayak today!

The team at Ride and Paddle is happy to help you to plan your trip, or to include you on one of our professionally guided tours.