Birds – Horned Grebe

(Colymbus auritus)

Called also: DUSKY GREBE; HELL DIVER; SPIRIT DUCK; – WATER WITCH; DIPPER

Length—14 inches.

Male and Female—In summer: Prominent yellowish brown crests resembling horns; cheeks chestnut; rest of head with puffy black feathers; back and wings blackish brown with a few whitish feathers in wings; front of neck, upper breast, and sides chestnut; lower breast and underneath, white. In winter: Lacking feathered head-dress; upper parts grayish black; under parts silvery white, sometimes washed with gray on the throat and breast. Elongated toes are furnished with broad lobes of skin.

Young—Like adults in winter plumage, but with heads distinctly striped.

Range—From Northern United States northward to fur countries in breeding season; migrating in winter to Gulf States.

Season—Plentiful during migrations in spring and autumn. Winter resident.

The ludicrous-looking head-dress worn by this grebe in the nesting season at the far north has quite disappeared by the time we see it in the United States; and so the bird that only a few months before was conspicuously different from any other, is often confounded with the pied-billed grebe, which accounts for the similarity of their popular names. As the bird flies it is some-times also mistaken for a duck; but a grebe may always be distinguished by its habit of thrusting its head and feet to the farthest opposite extremes when in the air. No birds are more expert in water than these. When alarmed they sink suddenly like lead, and from the depth to which they appear to go is derived at least one of their many suggestive names. Or, they may leap forward and plunge downward; but in any case they protect themselves by diving rather than by flight, and the maddening cleverness of their disappearance, which can be indefinitely prolonged owing to their habit of swimming with only the nostrils exposed above the surface, makes it simply impossible to locate them again on the lake.

On land, however, the grebes are all but helpless. Standing erect, and keeping their balance by the help of a rudimentary tail, they look almost as uncomfortable as fish out of water, which the evolutionists would have us believe the group of diving birds very nearly are. When the young ones are taken from a nest and placed on land they move with the help of their wings as if crawling on “all fours,” very much as a reptile might; and the eggs from which they have just emerged are ellipsoidal—i. e., elongated and with both ends pointed alike, another reptilian characteristic, it is thought. But oology is far from an exact science. As young alligators, for example, crawl on their mother’s back to rest, so the young grebes may often be seen. With an underthrust from the mother’s wing, which answers every purpose of a spring-board, the fledglings are precipitated into the water, and so acquire very early in life the art of diving, which in this family reaches its most perfect development. For a while, however, the young try to escape danger by hiding in the rushes of the lake, stream, or salt-water inlet, rather than by diving.

Grebes are not maritime birds. Their preference is for slow-moving waters, especially at the nesting season, since their nests are floating ones, and their food consists of small fish, mollusks, newts, and grain, such as the motionless inland waters abundantly afford. In winter, when we see the birds near our coasts, they usually feed on small fish alone. Unhappily the plumage of this and other grebes is in demand by milliners and furriers, to supply imaginary wants of unthinking women.