Birdwatch

Pied-Billed Grebe

A charismatic swimmer

By Susan Campbell

Here in North Carolina, winter is the season for waterfowl. On the coast we have multiple species of loons and geese, as well as more than two dozen kinds of dabbling ducks and divers. If you are looking closely, you may notice a very small swimmer as well one, that is often solitary in its habits. This would be the charismatic pied-billed grebe.

The pied-billed has the largest range of the five found across North America. However, they are not the strongest fliers, having relatively small, rounded wings. It is amazing that they are actually migrants. Our wintering birds may come from the upper Midwest or even central Canada.

The pied-billed grebe is a compact waterbird in a completely different family of birds that are expert swimmers and divers. In fact, you will never see a grebe on land. Their legs are placed so far back on their bodies that walking is very difficult. Not surprisingly, the word “grebe” literally means “feet at the buttocks.” But these birds can readily dive to great depths to forage for aquatic invertebrates such as crayfish as well as chase down small fish.

The pied-billed grebe is smaller than a football with shades of gray and a white underside. As its name implies, it has a silvery gray bill with a black band that is very stout. The jaws of these birds are very strong, however, and certainly more than compensate for what they lack in bill length. Cracking the exoskeletons of insects, shrimp and clams is no trouble, as is hanging onto slippery minnows. Another interesting detail of this bird’s anatomy is that it has an extremely short tail. It is the bright white undertail coverts that are noticeable at a distance.

These little birds have a couple of very interesting behavioral adaptations that one might notice after watching them for a while. One is that they have the capability to sink below the surface if the situation warrants. They use their unique ability to control the buoyancy of their plumage, and so can readily absorb water to increase their weight and quickly disappear from sight. Likewise they can swim with their heads just below the surface so as not to be seen. And they can even employ a “crash dive” to evade predators, pushing themselves downward with their wings and kicking hard with their feet.

One other well-known fact about pied-billeds is that they eat large quantities of their own feathers. It is thought that they create a large but porous plug in the gut that traps dangerous fragments of certain food items from entering the intestine. They even feed feathers to their young.

You can look for pied-billed grebes on any body of still or slow-moving water. Larger creeks, marshy ponds or even the sounds may host these little birds from October through March. However, individuals may give themselves away by the long, loud series of variable chatters, bleats or coos that they are making at this time of the year, when advertising their territory to the occasional interloper. Either way, these birds deserve a good look any time, even though they are not that large — or very colorful. 

Susan would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photos. She can be contacted at susan@ncaves.com.

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