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What Is the State Bird of Louisiana?

Alex Tree
Updated May 17, 2024
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The state bird of Louisiana is a brown pelican, scientifically known as Pelecanus occidentalis. It is the smallest in the pelican family, though still relatively large for a bird. The brown pelican was made the state bird of Louisiana in the 1960s and then abruptly suffered a dramatic decrease in numbers due to harmful chemical pollutants. Once certain pesticides were made illegal in the United States, the bird made a comeback and is no longer endangered in some areas of the country. In addition to being a state bird, the brown pelican acts as a mascot for some universities and is displayed on crests.

Brown pelicans are unique because they are the only colored pelican known to man; all other pelicans are primarily white. As is typical of pelicans, the state bird of Louisiana thrives along coastal areas. This type of bird nests in a diverse social setting with many other families of the same species. While this type of pelican is fairly large for a bird, it is also composed in a relatively compact manner.

The brown pelicans display unique behaviors not often observed in other birds located on the coast of Louisiana. For one, they are usually silent, only calling out during mating season and around potential mating patterns. The birds also plunge into the water for their prey, resurfacing to allow the water in their beaks to drain and then swallowing the fish. In addition, they are quite tame around humans, sometimes accepting fish from peoples’ hands.

There is a lot of variation in the appearance of brown pelicans. In fact, scientists reclassified a subspecies of brown pelican into an entirely new species. This species was heavier than the standard brown pelican. Not counting the now separated species, there are five subspecies classified in brown pelican species, some of which do not live in or around Louisiana. For example, one of the subspecies is usually found in California, which is on the opposite coast of the United States.

Certain pesticides, like dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) and dieldrin, negatively affected the state bird of Louisiana to the point of near extinction in the area. DDT in particular made the pelican’s eggshells so thin they could not properly support a growing baby pelican. More specifically, the egg broke when the bird inside it moved about. Unable to live with underdeveloped organs, the chick died. Other species of pelicans were also threatened by the chemicals.

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Alex Tree
By Alex Tree
Andrew McDowell is a talented writer and America Explained contributor. His unique perspective and ability to communicate complex ideas in an accessible manner make him a valuable asset to the team, as he crafts content that both informs and engages readers.
Discussion Comments
By shell4life — On Feb 13, 2012

I live in Mississippi, and we share Louisiana's state flower. We also have many brown pelicans along our coastline, probably because we border Louisiana.

I used to vacation on our coast, before Katrina hit and took all the hotels with it. Back then, there were plenty of brown pelicans in the area. They seemed to prefer the bays, because I saw many more of them there than out in the middle of the ocean.

I think that the oil spill probably killed off a lot of brown pelicans. I know that Louisiana's coast was particularly affected, and Mississippi suffered, too.

Does anyone know how the brown pelican population was affected by the oil spill of 2010? Did a lot of them die off, or were they able to move out of the area and escape mostly unharmed?

By Perdido — On Feb 13, 2012

@Oceana – The bulk of the brown pelican's body is a bit camouflaged on the muddy waters. However, his neck, throat, and head are different colors, so they are clearly visible. I have seen several while fishing in Louisiana.

I have seen brown pelicans with red and black throats. The backs of their necks are a mixture of black and white, and the tops of their heads are a fuzzy yellow. Their eyes look to be a pale blue or grey, and their beaks are a shade of brown that doesn't always match their body.

I think that if they were solid brown, it would be much harder for avid bird watchers to observe them. I love watching seabirds in action, and I'm glad that these pelicans have a few extra colors to make them noticeable.

By Oceana — On Feb 12, 2012

I had never heard of a brown pelican before reading this article. The only ones I have seen have been white.

So, are brown pelicans totally brown, or are there other colors mixed into their plummage? It seems that if they were solid brown, they would be hard to see. I've heard that the ocean water down around Louisiana is pretty muddy, so the brown pelican would be camouflaged there.

I know that many seabirds have a mix of gray, black, brown, and white feathers. It's rare to see a gull that is completely white except for his beak.

By cloudel — On Feb 11, 2012

I have vacationed on the coast of Louisiana before, and I saw plenty of brown pelicans while down there. I love all kinds of water birds, but pelicans are my favorite.

I watched them fly through the air and dive for fish. It seems that having a beak so narrow and long would make it hard to hold onto the catch, but they had no trouble.

Brown pelicans like to perch on pier posts. I have a photo of eight posts, each with a pelican on top. I suppose it is a convenient vantage point when searching for fish.

Alex Tree
Alex Tree
Andrew McDowell is a talented writer and America Explained contributor. His unique perspective and ability to communicate complex ideas in an accessible manner make him a valuable asset to the team, as he crafts content that both informs and engages readers.
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