Western Grebe Life History

Habitat

Habitat Lakes and PondsWestern Grebes breed on freshwater lakes and marshes with extensive open water bordered by emergent vegetation. During winter they move to saltwater or brackish bays, estuaries, or sheltered sea coasts and are less frequently found on freshwater lakes or rivers. Back to top

Food

Food FishWestern Grebes eat mainly fish, catching them by diving in open water. They either spear prey or capture it with a forceps-like motion of the bill, taking larger prey items to the surface before swallowing. They also occasionally consume bottom-dwelling crustaceans and worms (polychaetes). Back to top

Nesting

Nest Placement

Nest FloatingThe nest is most often built on floating vegetation hidden among emergent plants; Western Grebes occasionally nest in the open and rarely on land. Both sexes build the nest using material brought from underwater, found floating on the surface, or growing near the nest. Western Grebes often nest in colonies, with hundreds or even thousands on one lake.

Nest Description

The nest looks like a solid mound with a shallow depression for the eggs. It's built of plant materials from the bottom up, on a submerged snag or floating in up to 10 feet of water and anchored to emergent or floating plants. Rarely the nest is built on land using small amounts of surrounding vegetation.

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size:3-4 eggs
Number of Broods:1 brood
Egg Length:2.1-2.6 in (5.3-6.6 cm)
Egg Width:1.4-1.6 in (3.5-4.2 cm)
Incubation Period:24 days
Egg Description:Plain pale bluish, often stained brownish by sodden nest material.
Condition at Hatching:Alert and covered with blackish or silvery down; leaves nest and rides on back of parent after hatching.
Back to top

Behavior

Behavior Surface DiveThe Western Grebe, like other grebes, spends almost all its time in water and is very awkward when on land. The legs are so far back on the body that walking is very difficult. Western Grebes are adept swimmers and divers. Courtship happens entirely in the water, including a well-known display known as “rushing,” where two birds turn to one side, lunge forward in synchrony, their bodies completely out of the water, and race across the water side by side with their necks curved gracefully forward.Back to top

Conservation

Conservation Low ConcernPopulations of Western Grebe may be declining. The North American Waterbird Conservation Plan estimates more than 110,000 breeding birds in North America, rates the species a 12 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, and lists it as a Species of Moderate Concern. Western Grebe is not on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List. Around 1900, Western Grebes were extensively hunted for their silky white breast and belly feathers, which were used in clothing and hats. This aquatic species is also sensitive to pesticides, to other causes of poor water quality, and entanglement in fishing line. Western Grebes nest in colonies and can be flushed by boaters that approach too closely, leaving their nests vulnerable to gulls and other predators. On their coastal wintering grounds they are vulnerable to oil spills and are caught in gill nets. According to NatureServe, their status is of particular concern near the edges of their range, in Kansas, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, and British Columbia, Canada. Back to top

Credits

Kushlan, J. A., M. J. Steinkamp, K. C. Parsons, J. Capp, M. A. Cruz, M. Coulter, I. Davidson, L. Dickson, N. Edelson, R. Elliott, R. M. Erwin, S. Hatch, S. Kress, R. Milko, S. Miller, K. Mills, R. Paul, R. Phillips, J. E. Saliva, W. Sydeman, J. Trapp, J. Wheeler and K. Wohl (2002). Waterbird conservation for the Americas: The North American waterbird conservation plan, version 1. Washington, DC, USA. 

LaPorte, Nicholas, Robert W. Storer and Gary L. Nuechterlein. 2013. Western Grebe (Aechmophorus occidentalis), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2015.2. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2015.

North American Bird Conservation Initiative. 2014. The State of the Birds 2014 Report. US Department of Interior, Washington, DC, USA.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley guide to birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, USA.

Back to top