Why You Shouldn't Feed Pelicans

They may look hungry, but tossing food scraps to Brown Pelicans does more harm than good.

A day at the beach wouldn’t be complete without sunburn, sandy shoes, and Brown Pelicans flying low over the ocean or lounging on the sand. While it seems tempting, feeding our feathered friends can be more harmful than you think.

Pelicans, like all birds, have to practice fishing at a young age to survive as an adult. By repeatedly feeding a pelican, it encourages them to stop fishing.

They’ll begin to rely on humans as a food source and will resort to begging. A diet consisting of random food scraps could make these birds sick because their bodies would have trouble with digestion and they won’t get the nutrients they need.

An example of a worst-case scenario is a young Brown Pelican named Andrew, who was rescued last year by Audubon North Carolina Executive Director Andrew Hutson and rehabilitated by Sea Biscuit Wildlife Shelter. After spending time in the shelter, Andrew the pelican wasn't successfully released into the wild because he followed boats around, begging instead of learning to feed himself.

His story has a happy ending of sorts—he was recaptured and Sea Biscuit was able to place him at an educational facility in Ohio—but he will never get to be a wild pelican again, and other “beggar” pelicans may not be so fortunate.

A large number of begging pelicans reside at piers. They associate fishermen with food because they often throw them fish and fish carcasses. Pelicans are supposed to eat fresh, whole fish, with bones they can easily swallow and digest. Swallowing the bare bones of a fish could puncture their esophagus.

Some piers have tubes that extend underwater so that the carcasses of filleted fish can be discarded out of reach of pelicans. Use these if they’re available or dispose of your fish carcasses away from pelicans.

Sometimes pelicans will dive into the water for a fish that has been hooked on a fishing line. This could cause the bird to become tangled in the line, resulting in an injury. Over time, their gular pouch—the skin pouch that dangles from their lower mandible—may get ripped apart from hooks and lures, making it nearly impossible for them to eat.

The best way to avoid this is to prevent pelicans from associating fishermen with free food in the first place. The next best way is to stop casting if pelicans take an interest in lures or hooked fish.

The next time you want to soak up some sun on the beach, remember to let the pelicans be—they eat from the sea.

How you can help, right now