Pied-billed Grebe

Common Name: Pied-billed Grebe.

Scientific Name: Podilymbus Podiceps.

What to look for?  The Pied-billed Grebe is a small pigeon-sized, brown waterbird. They have a blocky head and almost no tail. Breeding Pied-billed Grebes have a vertical black stripe on their short, thick bill. Non-breeding birds lack the black bill stripe. Juveniles have striped faces. While you not likely to observe, the Pied-billed Grebe’s feet are placed far back on its body which helps propel itself more easily through the water.

Where can they be found at Carillon Stonegate Pond? Think part bird, part submarine! The Pied-billed Grebe is one of the "submersibles” of Carillon Stonegate Pond (the Double-crested Cormorant, Hooded Merganser, Bufflehead, Caspian Tern and Ring-necked Duck are the other “submersibles” that visits our ponds). Look toward the middle of either of our ponds. These birds spend a lot of time diving, so make several scans of our ponds before moving on. You will see the very lonely Pied-billed Grebe popping in and out of the water as they feed. They are generally around from Spring into early Summer, then leaving during the hottest part of the summer and returning in Fall.

How big are they? The Pied-billed Grebe averages around 13 inches in length. And their wingspan is approximately 20 inches. They weigh in at around one pound.

What are their flight patterns? For all my daylight sightings of the Pied-billed Grebe, I have never seen one in flight. Apparently, this is in part because it migrates by night, landing on the nearest body of water before or at dawn, and because it usually prefers to escape danger by crash-diving into the pond rather than flying away. When they do fly, Pied-billed Grebes need a long running and flapping start to take off from water.

How else do they behave? The Pied-billed Grebe is far less sociable than most grebes. They are almost never found in flocks. Like the Maytag repairman, this bird is generally found alone on small ponds like Carillon Stonegate Ponds.The Pied-billed Grebe is an excellent swimmer and diver. It often dives to evade predators. When alarmed, the Pied-billed Grebe often sinks slowly into the water, resurfacing out of sight among the reeds. But it can also dive with amazing speed, a habit that has earned it the nickname "Hell-diver”. One of the more unusual behaviors of grebes is that they eat their own feathers. Some scientists have speculated that the feathers help the birds digest their food or regurgitate undigested items.

What’s for dinner? Pied-billed Grebes eat mostly crustaceans 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. They also eat beetles, dragonfly nymphs, aquatic insects and small amounts of aquatic plants. They collect most of their food underwater during foraging dives.

Where do they take up residence? Pied-billed Grebes are widespread and common in most of the U.S. and southern Canada. Their preferred habitat includes ponds and small lakes with ample emergent vegetation, such as cattails and bulrushes.

Where do they breed and nest? Pied-billed Grebes breed from early spring to mid-autumn, depending upon the climate. They typically build their nests among floating vegetation emerging from the ponds. For migrating grebes, their breeding grounds are found in the northern U.S. and southern Canada. The Pied-billed Grebe is the only grebe that will remain in Illinois to nest.

Where do they migrate? On Carillon Stonegate Pond, Pied-billed Grebes visit during migration in early spring and in the fall. In northern North America and the Great Plains, where bodies of water freeze, Pied-billed Grebes migrate south as far as northern Central America. Those birds residing in the southern U.S. and Mexico do not migrate. Pied-billed Grebes tend to move at night, landing at dawn on the nearest body of water. See map from Birds of North America on the right.

What is their conservation status? There is low concern. According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, the Pied-billed Grebe has seen stable populations. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 500 thousand.

Do they make any interesting sounds? On ponds and marshes where it breeds, the Pied-billed Grebe advertises its presence with loud, barking calls. Among the most commonly heard sounds are a long, loud, rhythmic series of bleating whoops, coos, and gulping “kuk-kuk-kuk”. Here is a link to the sounds of the Pied-billed Grebe.

Interesting Facts About Pied-billed Grebes:

  • 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.

  • Pied-billed Grebes are poor fliers and typically stay on the water—although rare individuals have managed to fly as far as the Hawaiian Islands.

  • Pied-billed Grebes can trap water in their feathers, giving them great control over their buoyancy and allowing them to sink deeply or stay just at or below the surface of the pond.

  • Known as Nature’s submarine.

  • When in danger, Pied-billed Grebes sometimes make a dramatic “crash-dive” to get away by pushing its body down with its wings thrust outward; its tail and head disappear last, while the bird kicks water several feet into the air.

  • Once endangered in Illinois, the pied-billed grebe has recovered and removed from the threatened and endangered species list in 2004.

  • The longest-lived Pied-billed Grebe on record was approximately 5 years old.

For more information on the Pied-billed Grebe and sources of information used in this blog (these are the sources that I am using to learn as I blog), please visit All About Birds, Audubon Society and Bird Web.  And the Cornell Lab of Ornithology provides a wonderful source of information for anyone interested in learning more about birds.

The Carillon at Stonegate community is very fortunate to have a variety of wetland, forest and prairie environments conducive to a variety of birds and other wildlife, plants and insects. Our community and the Kane County Forest Preserve do an exceptional job in maintaining this natural environment – both for the benefit of the birds and wildlife and for our residents to enjoy.

 

Take a hike and see what you can find – and identify!