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Pied-billed Grebe

Podilymbus podiceps ORDER: PODICIPEDIFORMES FAMILY: PODICIPEDIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Part bird, part submarine, the Pied-billed Grebe is common across much of North America. These small brown birds have unusually thick bills that turn silver and black in summer. These expert divers inhabit sluggish rivers, freshwater marshes, lakes, and estuaries. They use their chunky bills to kill and eat large crustaceans along with a great variety of fish, amphibians, insects, and other invertebrates. Rarely seen in flight and often hidden amid vegetation, Pied-billed Grebes announce their presence with loud, far-reaching calls.

At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
11.8–15 in
30–38 cm
Wingspan
17.7–24.4 in
45–62 cm
Weight
8.9–20 oz
253–568 g
Relative Size
Smaller than an American Coot; about the size of a Green-winged Teal.
Other Names
  • Grèbe à bec bigarré (French)
  • Zambullidor piquigrueso, Macá picopinto (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • The Latin genus name for “grebe” means “feet at the buttocks”—an apt descriptor for these birds, whose feet are indeed located near their rear ends. This body plan, a common feature of many diving birds, helps grebes propel themselves through water. Lobed (not webbed) toes further assist with swimming. Pied-billed Grebes pay for their aquatic prowess on land, where they walk awkwardly.
  • Pied-billed Grebe chicks typically leave the nest the first day after hatching and spend much of their first week riding around on a parent’s back. They usually spend most of their first 3 weeks on or near the nest platform.
  • Pied-billed Grebes are fairly poor fliers and typically stay on the water—although rare individuals have managed to fly as far as the Hawaiian Islands, Europe, the Azores, and the Canary Islands.
  • Pied-billed Grebes can trap water in their feathers, giving them great control over their buoyancy. They can sink deeply or stay just at or below the surface, exposing as much or as little of the body as they wish. The water-trapping ability may also aid in the pursuit of prey by reducing drag in turbulent water.
  • Like other grebes, the Pied-billed Grebe eats large quantities of its own feathers. Feathers may at times fill up more than half of a grebe’s stomach, and they are sometimes fed to newly hatched chicks. The ingested plumage appears to form a sieve-like plug that prevents hard, potentially harmful prey parts from passing into the intestine, and it helps form indigestible items into pellets which they can regurgitate.
  • When in danger, Pied-billed Grebes sometimes make a dramatic “crash-dive” to get away. A crash-diving grebe pushes its body down with its wings thrust outward. Its tail and head disappears last, while the bird kicks water several feet into the air.
  • The longest-lived Pied-billed Grebe on record was at least 4 years, 7 months old and lived in California.

Habitat


Lake/Pond

Pied-billed Grebes live on bodies of flat or sluggish, fresh to slightly brackish water, at altitudes from sea level to about 8,000 feet. They forage in open water but construct their floating nests using materials and anchors of aquatic vegetation and/or dense stands of emergent vegetation—plants that root underwater with leaves and stems that extend into air. Habitat types include freshwater wetlands, wet fields, bays, sloughs, marshes, lakes, slow-moving rivers, and even sewage ponds. Pied-billed Grebes can nest in moderately to heavily populated areas. They occupy similar habitats during migration and winter.

Food


Insects

Pied-billed Grebes eat mostly crustaceans (particularly crayfish) and small fish, which they capture and crush with their stout bills and strong jaws. Overall, these opportunistic feeders consume a great variety of prey items, large and small, depending on what’s available. Collecting most of their food underwater during foraging dives, they eat crabs, shrimp, snails, mussels, beetles, dragonfly nymphs, and aquatic insects and their larvae. In some parts of their range, Pied-billed Grebes go after leeches, frogs and tadpoles. Among this grebe’s most common fish prey are carp, minnows, catfish, sculpins, killifish, sticklebacks, gizzard shad, and sunfishes. Pied-billed Grebes in the fishless wetlands of Manitoba kill and eat tiger salamanders.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
2–10 eggs
Number of Broods
1-2 broods
Egg Length
1.5–2 in
3.8–5 cm
Egg Width
1.1–1.3 in
2.7–3.2 cm
Incubation Period
23–27 days
Nestling Period
1 days
Egg Description
Bluish white to greenish white, rarely turquoise, and unmarked.
Condition at Hatching
Downy and active, the chicks leave the nest soon after hatching and climb onto the adult's back where they are brooded during their first week of life.
Nest Description

Like other grebes, the Pied-billed Grebe creates an open bowl nest on a platform of floating vegetation. The crude circular platform may be placed atop a lily leaf or built up from buoyant material, such as the stems of bulrushes and water lilies. Other added material may include Eurasian water-milfoil, sago pondweed, stonewort, cattails, and small sticks. Both sexes build the nest, and can construct a platform that will support an egg in as little as 1 day. Construction normally starts 3 to 5 days before egg-laying and continues during and after laying. The birds collect soft, flexible, fresh or partly decomposed plant material from beneath the water and clip off stiffer material near the surface. The nest bowl is 4–5 inches in diameter and about an inch deep, and may be expanded during egg-laying period to accommodate additional eggs.

Nest Placement

Floating

Pied-billed Grebes typically situate their nests among tall emergent vegetation; sometimes they nest among lower-growing plants. Both male and female may take part in selecting the site, favoring locations with water deeper than about 9 inches, which allows for escape, feeding, and nest platform construction.

Behavior


Surface Dive

Pied-billed Grebes forage in water among aquatic plants and beneath mats of floating vegetation. They usually dive for food, but occasionally pluck insects from foliage, the water’s surface, or the air. They sometimes feed near moving herons and egrets. Pied-billed Grebes escape danger by “crash-diving”—plunging with head and tail raised above the belly, making a splash. They can also dive head first, or simply sink quietly out of view, leaving no trace. Parents dive with young clamped under their wings; occasionally a chick accidentally pops out. These grebes often avoid danger by submerging, crocodile-style, with just the eyes and nostrils above the surface. During breeding season, adult Pied-billed Grebes (especially males) chase and attack members of their own species as well as other waterbirds, often attacking from underwater. Courting adults raise their breasts partially out of the water, jerk their heads toward each other and perform pirouettes. In another courtship ceremony, one adult races along just beneath the surface, creating ripples that trace its underwater path. Pied-billed Grebes need a long running-flapping start to take off from water.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Pied-billed Grebes are widespread and fairly common in most of the U.S. and southern Canada, and overall, populations were stable between 1966 and 2014, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. However, the North American Waterbird Conservation Plan rates the continental population a 12 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, and lists it as a Species of High Concern. Pied-billed Grebe is not on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List. You should not have too much trouble finding these birds, particularly in summer on larger ponds and smaller lakes with ample emergent vegetation, such as cattails and bulrushes. Particularly watch the edges of emergent vegetation and look for roughly circular masses of floating, dead vegetation that might be Pied-billed Grebe nests. In winter, look for the species on larger water bodies where it often aggregates into small flocks. The distinctive very small body and comparatively large, blocky head is a good shape to look for. These birds spend a lot of time diving, so make several scans of a body of water before moving on.

Credits

Range Map Help

Pied-billed Grebe Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Resident to short-distance migrant. Individuals in northern North America and the Great Plains, where bodies of water freeze, migrate south as far as northern Central America. Populations in the southern U.S. and Mexico do not migrate. Migrants tend to move at night, landing on the nearest body of water at dawn.

Find This Bird

Pied-billed Grebes are widespread and fairly common in most of the U.S. and southern Canada, and you should not have too much trouble finding them, particularly in summer on larger ponds and smaller lakes with ample emergent vegetation, such as cattails and bulrushes. Particularly watch the edges of emergent vegetation and look for roughly circular masses of floating, dead vegetation that might be Pied-billed Grebe nests. In winter, look for the species on larger water bodies where it often aggregates into small flocks. The distinctive very small body and comparatively large, blocky head is a good shape to look for. These birds spend a lot of time diving, so make several scans of a body of water before moving on.

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bird image Blue-winged Warbler by Brian Sullivan

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