Red pouches on Brown Pelicans

In the Sibley Guide to Birds I illustrated Pacific and Atlantic/Gulf populations of Brown Pelican, showing different colors on the throat pouch (red on adult Pacific and olive on immature Pacific; always dark gray on Atlantic birds) and suggesting that these colors could identify the two populations. It turns out that Brown Pelicans in Texas can also show bright red pouches fairly frequently during the nesting season, so this is not a reliable way to distinguish Pacific and Atlantic birds.

A photo from Texas by Frank Johnson here, prompted John Arvin to say “Red bare parts in the bill/face area seem to be throughout the Brown Pelican population when in high breeding condition. Many individuals in the lower Laguna Madre area show this color.” (11 Mar 2003, Texbirds listserve) and Brush Freeman suggests that 10-15% of Texas pelicans show this color.

Noel Wamer had previously written to me about a bird in Florida Bay, FL, which was the first reported in Florida as far as he knew. I think I remember hearing of others since then in Florida and I would be interested in knowing of any.

Sometime around 1970 there was apparently a reintroduction program which brought Brown Pelicans to Texas after the population had been decimated by DDT. Noel Wamer wondered whether some of these birds were from the Pacific and could have introduced the red pouch genes to the Gulf. On the other hand, banding records show a substantial number of birds moving across Central America from Pacific to Caribbean and vice versa, so there is probably plenty of natural gene flow between the two oceans.


  • Are red-pouched pelicans as frequent in Florida as they are in Texas? (So far the answer seems to be “no”).
  • Are they truly rare or just overlooked on the Atlantic coast of Florida and farther north?
  • Do  immatures and nonbreeding adults of the red-pouched birds in the Gulf have pale yellow-olive pouches, as they do in California?
  • Do some pelicans on the Pacific coast have dark gray pouches?

13 thoughts on “Red pouches on Brown Pelicans”

  1. To my knowledge no re-introductions from outside the state were done in Texas. Texas retained a small, heavily protected population extant though the crash of the 1960 through 1970’s. Reintroductions were done in Louisiana, and presumably some of these birds could have ended up in Texas. Though, in Texas, the bulk of the recovery centered around small and growing populations on the central Texas coast (not the upper coast, nearest Louisiana). I believe the reintroduction in Louisiana used birds from Florida, resulting initially in these colonies breeding much earlier in the season than Texas birds.

    1. I photographed a spectacular brown pelican with a red pouch and yellow feathered head in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina.

  2. Four weeks ago about six to eight brown pelicans were at pier 19 Galveston tx they had red pouches and yellow patches at the Brest I have taken photos of these birds the past two years an i have not seen these birds before where do you think they ca
    e a teacher and guide at Galveston bird fest 2011 said he thought they came from California.
    Betty Clark midland,Texas 4-8-11.

    1. Hi Betty, In California virtually all of the pelicans have red pouches, but they show up often enough in the Gulf and Atlantic (such as your sighting of several in Galveston) that is seems pretty clear the Eastern birds can have red pouches as well. It is most common in early spring in the peak of breeding season, so your observation fits right in. So your birds probably came from right there in Galveston, not from California.

  3. Today, Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve staff photographed a Brown Pelican with a red pouch in Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve located near Bonita Springs, FL.

  4. Arielle Taylor-Manges

    Charlotte Harbor Aquatic Preserves staff documented a brown pelican with a red pouch in Pine Island Sound Aquatic Preserve at Pineland Marina, Pineland, FL today. Pictures and lat/long can be provided.

  5. Yesterday, May 16th, Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve photographed a brown pelican with a red pouch. This is the second recorded sighting of a red pouch brown pelican in Estero Bay.

  6. I photographed a Brown Pelican with a red pouch off West Ship Island, Gulfport, Mississippi on April 20, 2018

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