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Red-necked Grebe Life History


Lakes and Ponds

In North America, Red-necked Grebes breed chiefly in Canada and Alaska, mostly on shallow freshwater lakes in lowland areas, especially sheltered areas that have some marsh vegetation around the edges and little disturbance or human activity. Some pairs nest in small lakes, bogs, and ponds or even in large ditches or borrow pits, and some nest in wetlands of montane valleys at higher elevations. Migrants may show up on almost any body of water inland in spring or fall, though most appear on larger lakes. Wintering birds frequent mostly cold, shallow waters along ocean coastlines. Along coasts, they tend to forage more actively during higher tides. On several occasions during very cold winters, when the Great Lakes have frozen over completely, large numbers of Red-necked Grebes have appeared across eastern North America in interior locations where they’re not normally observed.

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Red-necked Grebes feed mostly on fish and crustaceans, along with some insects. They hunt visually in relatively clear water, from the top of the water to the bottom, if they can reach it. Sometimes, like loons, they submerge their heads partially while floating, scanning for prey, which they capture by diving and then grasping rapidly with the bill. They swallow small fish whole, headfirst, usually while still underwater. When they catch larger fish or crustaceans, Red-necked Grebes normally return to the water’s surface and prepare for swallowing the prey item by shaking and biting it. During winter, they eat fish and occasionally shrimp. When nesting, they consume almost any sort of aquatic animal or insect available, including smaller fish, salamanders, frogs (including tadpoles), amphipods, leeches, crayfish, small clams, damselflies, dragonflies, spiders, and many sorts of aquatic beetles and flies.

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Nest Placement


Nests are set near or on sheltered lakeshores, in emergent or floating aquatic vegetation. Most pairs also build additional nestlike structures for copulation.

Nest Description

Male and female both build the nest, a bulky pile of aquatic plants that is anchored to emergent plants or piled directly on the lake bottom and built up. Most of the nest mound lies underwater. The central portion above water is lower than the edges, to contain the eggs. Nests average about 44 inches across, with a depression of about 6 inches across and 1.6 inches deep.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:1-9 eggs
Egg Description:Light blue.
Condition at Hatching:Downy and active; chicks immediately climb onto parent's back, where they spend most of their time until they are 10 to 17 days old.
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Surface Dive

Red-necked Grebes feed by diving, then swimming beneath the water to capture prey with the bill. While resting, they often preen their plumage, sometimes swallowing the small feathers from their flanks. Red-necked Grebes form monogamous pairs, usually during stopovers on spring migration (possibly earlier), as they begin to molt into breeding plumage and commence courtship. Most arrive at breeding lakes already mated and continue their ritualized displays, called “ceremonies,” which maintain the pair bond. As with other grebes, each ceremony involves a series of stereotyped postures and movements, executed in a specific sequence. These are called the discovery ceremony, weed ceremony, and greeting ceremony. More than other grebes in the genus Podiceps, Red-necked pairs are highly vocal, giving a “whinny-braying” call during courtship and also when driving away other grebes or waterbirds from their territories. In some locations, however, pairs nest very close to one another, probably in areas where food is abundant. Aggressive behavior includes chases in which opponents patter and flap across the water, thrusting the bill forward and hunching over; and a spread-wing display in which opponents rear up on the water, facing one another. Male and female select their nest site together, and both build the nest, incubate the eggs, and care for the young. Pairs usually separate after the young are fully fledged, at about four weeks of age. Migration occurs both during the day (at least over water, as on the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay) and at night, sometimes in loose aggregations, as with loons. Wintering birds are usually solitary but sometimes congregate where food is plentiful or in preparation for migration.

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Low Concern

Red-necked Grebes are fairly common. Populations were stable between 1968 and 2015 and grew by an estimated 3.7% per year in the last decade of that period, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. The group estimates a global breeding population of 160,000 and rates the species a 10 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating a species of low conservation concern. The species is sometimes killed in fishing nets during the nonbreeding season and is vulnerable to contamination by marine pollutants, including organochlorine pesticides and heavy metals, which have been found in adults and eggs. Disturbance and destruction of wetlands, especially in the southern portions of the breeding range, has reduced nesting areas available. As with Horned Grebe, there is some evidence that the breeding range of Red-necked Grebe is contracting northward in North America.

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Stout, Bonnie E. and Gary L. Nuechterlein. (1999). Red-necked Grebe (Podiceps grisegena), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

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