Ballona Photography | Our Neighbor, the California Brown Pelican & Invite to Audubon's 2016 May 7th Survey

Our Neighbor, the California Brown Pelican & Invite to Audubon's 2016 May 7th Survey

March 30, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

© By Bev-Sue Powers, (

These ancient, graceful birds (except when they’re fishing!) have made the Ballona Wetlands their home for hundreds if not tens of thousands of years.  Usually they’re our year-round neighbors in the Ballona Wetlands/Marina Del Rey area.  Here are some fun facts about our neighbor:

·         The California Brown Pelican was classified as federally endangered in 1970 and as endangered by the state of California in 1971 (due to DDT poisoning), but was delisted as a federally listed species in 2009. The brown pelican remains protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act

·         Though most of the California brown pelican population (est. 85-90%) nests in Mexico, the only breeding colonies of California brown pelicans in the western United States are within Channel Islands National Park on West Anacapa and Santa Barbara islands.  Since the 1980s, the nesting and roosting populations in the Channel Island sites have continued to increase.  As of 2006, the pelican population on West Anacapa Island averaged about 4,600 nesting pairs annually and on Santa Barbara Island the average is about 1,500 nesting pairs.

·         The nesting season can extend from January through October. Nesting and roosting birds are very sensitive to human disturbance, affected by ancillary fishing activities, including the presence of vessels, noise, and lights, near roosting and breeding areas. Increased light levels are known to alter the behavior of pelicans, leading to nest abandonment and increased egg and chick mortality.

·         With incubation 28-30 days, chicks are naked, helpless and completely dependent on parental care and protection for the first three to four weeks after hatching. Both parents feed the young until they fledge, which is typically about 13 weeks of age. In a healthy environment, the Brown pelican can live up to 40 years.

·         The brown pelican catch fish by diving head-first from ten to thirty above the surface. The deeper the meal the higher the dive. The pelicans hit the water with such force that even fish six feet below the surface are stunned.

During the spring of 2014, for a week or two, the Brown Pelicans made for a spectacular show - hundreds gathered and dove for the abundant fish returning to the creek and Marina (Northern Anchovies, Pacific Mackerels and/or Pacific Sardines).  It is estimated that annually, California brown pelicans off the southern California coast eat about one percent of the total anchovy biomass. 

The 2014 All You Can Eat Pelican BuffetThe 2014 All You Can Eat Pelican Buffet

2015’s spring and summer were a stark contrast to 2014, with little to no Pelicans in sight.  I started researching why this might be and discovered there was a 90% collapse in the populations of fish they eat! The pelicans and their offspring have been starving to death. Though the fisheries collapse is attributed to El Niño conditions, I can’t help but wonder if the overall changes to our oceans and climate will continue to challenge the very survival of our regal neighbor, the California Brown Pelican. Let’s hope not!

Recently, the Audubon of California started organizing volunteers along the US West Coast to participate in the 2016 survey of the Brown Pelicans.  On Saturday, May 7, 5-7pm, participants will count birds and record results to data sheets and to eBird ( This survey will complement a 47-year time series of productivity monitoring data at the U.S. Channel Islands. One of the key west coast locations is at the Playa Del Rey—Ballona Creek mouth. This location is being coordinated by the Santa Monica Audubon Chapter. If you’d like to participate, contact Travis Abeyta (323-221-2255, ext 17, For more information and to sign up, visit


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