Birds – All About the Pied-billed Grebe

(Podilymbus podiceps)



Length—14 inches. Smallest of the grebes.

Male and Female—In summer: Upper parts dusky, grayish brown ; wings varied with ashy and white; throat black; upper breast, sides of throat, and sides of body yellowish brown, irregularly and indistinctly mottled or barred with blackish and washed with yellowish brown; lower breast and underneath glossy white. A few bristling feathers on head, but no horns. Bill spotted with dusky and blue (pied-billed) and crossed with a black band. Toes elongated and with broad lobes of skin. In winter: Similar to summer plumage, except that throat is white and the black band on bill is lacking.

Young—Like adults in winter. Heads beautifully striped with black, white, and yellowish brown.

Range—British provinces and United States and southward to Brazil, Argentine Republic, including the West Indies and Bermuda, breeding almost throughout its range.

Season—Common migrant in spring and fall. Winters from New jersey and southern Illinois southward.

The most abundant species of the family in the eastern United States, particularly near the Atlantic, the pied-billed grebes are far from being maritime birds notwithstanding. Salt water that finds its way into the fresh-water lagoons of the Gulf States, or the estuaries of our northern rivers, is as briny as they care to taste; and although so commonly met with near the sea, they are still more common in the rivers, lakes, and ponds inland, where tall reeds and sedges line the shores and form their ideal hunting and nesting grounds. The grebes and loons are not edible, nor are they classed as game birds by true sportsmen; nevertheless this bird is often hunted, although the sportsman finds it a wary victim, for there is no bird in the world more difficult to shoot than a ” water-witch.” One instant it will be swimming around the lake apparently unconcerned about the intruder; the next instant, and before aim can be taken, it will have dropped to unknown depths, but presumably to the infernal regions, the sportsman thinks, as he rests meditatively upon his gun, waiting for the grebe to reappear in the neighborhood, which it never dreams of doing. It will swim swiftly under water to a safe distance from danger; then, by keeping only its nostrils ex-posed to the air, will float along just under the surface and leave its would-be assassin completely mystified as to its whereabouts —a trick the very fledglings practice. It is amazing how long a grebe can remain submerged. In pursuing fish, which form its staple diet; in diving to escape danger, to feed, to loosen water-weeds for the construction of its nest, among its other concerns below the surface, it has been missed under water for five minutes, and not at all short of breath on its return above at the end of that time. Fresh-water mollusks, newts, winged insects, vegetable matter, including seeds of wild grain and some grasses, vary the bird’s fish diet.

Ungainly and ill at ease on land, in fact, almost helpless there, a grebe rarely ventures out of the water either to sleep or to nest. The young rest on their mother’s back after their first swimming lessons that are begun the hour they are hatched; but they quickly become wonderfully expert and independent of every-thing except water: that is their proper element. Nevertheless they can fly with speed and grace, though with much working of their short wings and stretching of their short bodies, from which their heads project as far as may be at one end and their great lobed feet at the other.

The nest of all grebes is an odd affair, one of the curiosities of bird architecture. A few blades of “saw grass” may or may not serve as anchor to the floating mass of water-weeds pulled from the bottom of the lake and held together by mud and moss. The structure resembles nothing so much as a mud pancake rising two or three inches above the water, though, like an iceberg, only about one-eighth of it shows above the surface. A grebe’s nest is often two or three feet in depth. In a shallow depression, from four to ten, though usually five, soiled, brownish-white eggs are laid, and concealed by a mass of wet muck whenever the mother leaves her incubating duties. At night she sits on the nest, and for some hours each day; but at other times the water-soaked, muck-covered cradle, with the help of the sun, steams the contents into life.