Pied-billed Grebe

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Common Name: Pied-billed Grebe
Scientific Name: Podilymbus podiceps

Size: 11.8-15 inches (30-38 cm); Wingspan: 17.7-24.4 inches (45-62 cm)

Habitat: North and South America; found in the continental United States through to the northern tip of South America and the southern portion of South America. It will summer in Canada where they are a 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.

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.

Status: Least Concern. Global population: Unknown amount of adult individuals. Pied-billed Grebes are widespread and fairly common in most of the U.S. and southern Canada, though their populations experienced a small decline between 1966 and 2010, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey.

Diet: Fish, invertebrates and some plant material. They catch small fish and invertebrates by diving or simply slowly submerging.

Nesting: Sexes were alike. These are brown birds, slightly darker above and more tawny-brown on the under parts. During spring and summer, the crown and nape are dark and the throat is black. While breeding, the bill is whitish with a black band (“pied’), but otherwise is yellow-brown. Juveniles have striped faces.

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. They create 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.

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.

Cool Facts: The Latin genus name for “grebe” means “feet at the buttocks" which is 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 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.

Found in Songbird Remix Waterfowl Volume 4: Geese, Loons, Grebes & Coots

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