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Podilymbus podiceps - Pied-billed Grebe

Pied-billed Grebe image

Geographic range:

Entire United States, eastern Canada, Central America, the Caribbean, South America, and in the UK and Europe

Key features:

Small and secretive. In breeding season it has a black patch on throat and its stocky bill becomes two-toned: white with a central black band encircling the bill (pied-billed).

Similar species:

Podiceps grisegena -- Red-necked grebe
Podiceps auritus -- Horned grebe
Podiceps nigricollis -- Eared grebe

Habitat(s):

bay (rocky shore), bay (sandy shore), estuary
 

Primary common name:

Pied-billed Grebe

General grouping:

Seabirds and shorebirds

ITIS code:

174505
 

Geographic Range

Range Description:

The Pied-billed Grebe has the widest distribution in the Americas of any grebe, breeding in south coastal Alaska, central Canada and her maritime provinces, most of the United States, Central America, and Chile and Argentina in South America.

Their winter range includes southernmost British Columbia, n. Idaho, w. Montana, n. Utah, n. central Colorado, n. Texas, ne. Oklahoma, n. Arkansas, e. Missouri, central Illinois, s. Indiana, sw. Ohio, w. Kentucky, n. Tennessee, w. Virginia, se. Pennsylvania, s. New York, central Connecticut, and e. Massachusetts, south throughout North and Middle America, Bermuda, and the West Indies.

In Monterey County they are considered uncommon on freshwater, until over-wintering Pied-billed Grebes arrive to increase their numbers from September through March. They are seen in saltwater in sheltered portions of Monterey Bay. They are rarely seen flying, as they migrate at night, and prefer to sink out of sight when danger threatens.

Habitats

bay (rocky shore), bay (sandy shore), estuary

Habitat notes:

They usually inhabit freshwater ponds, quiet streams, and marshes. In the MBNMS area some are resident throughout the year, with more arriving for the winter. They may be found in brackish marshes around Elkhorn Slough and also on saltwater in sheltered parts of inner Monterey Bay, particularly from mid-September through March. Breeding behavior has been observed during all seasons on small freshwater ponds, lakes, and marshes throughout Monterey County. During migration they can be found at higher elevations, even in mountain lakes.

Abundance

Relative abundance:

Uncommon

Species Description

General description:

The Pied-billed Grebe belongs to the family Podicipedidae. This family is superficially similar to loons, with grebes being smaller and having lobed toes and longer necks. Their tail is small and usually hidden by feathers that grow low on the back, called uppertail coverts. The Pied-billed Grebe is a small, compact grebe, short necked, with a small head, and more secretive and vocal than most other grebes. All other grebes have thinner bills and quite different plumage.

Pied-billed Grebes have drab tawny-brown plumage year-round. They are fairly stocky, with a distinctive thick bill that is laterally compressed and down curved at the tip, forming a slight hook. The bill is 3.5 cm long by 1.5 cm deep, and is “pied” (two-toned), white with a black encircling central band which occurs from February to September, their breeding season. During this season they also have a black throat patch. In non-breeding season the bill is a pale, dull flesh color, and the plumage has a rusty tinge. The eye is brownish black year round with a thin, white eye ring.

They are most vocal during breeding season, with a unique song by the male, which carries long distances. The song is vibrant, with throaty barks and syllables of “ge ge gadum gadum gadum gaum gaom gwaaaaaow gwaaaaaaow gaom”. The female gives low grunting notes. They have a drawn-out, nasal chatter that descends and fades away when in aggressive behavior.

They are the most solitary of all the grebes, usually seen alone or with a mate. They sometimes swim with only their head above water, while the rest of the time they sit on the water much like a duck, but lower in the water. The legs are set well back on the body and the feet are lobed. They have difficulty walking on land but are excellent divers and swimmers. Juvenile plumage is similar to adults’ non-breeding plumage but also has dark brown and white splotches on the side of the head, and the bill is a dull orange with no black central encircling ring, but a smudge of black on the lower mandible.

Distinctive features:

The Pied-billed Grebe is small, stocky, compact, solitary, and secretive. It is almost never seen ashore, as legs are set far back on the body, making walking difficult. It dives headfirst from a sitting position on the water and often swims with only its head above water. It is primarily brown with two changes that occur during breeding season: its neck develops a black throat patch; and its thick, laterally compressed bill with a slight hook at the tip, turns from flesh color to two-toned white with a black encircling central band (pied-billed). Eyes are brownish- black with a white eye ring.

To differentiate among similar Grebe species, see the key below:
Horned Grebe (has red eye, not brownish-black)
Eared Grebe (has red eye and thinner bill)
Red-necked Grebe (is larger, with yellow bill)

Size:

Length: 12-15 in (31-38 cm)
Wingspan: 16-24 in (40-62 cm)
Weight: 9-20 oz (253-568 gm), males heavier than females

Natural History

General natural history:

The Pied-billed Grebe is a solitary and secretive grebe. It is highly territorial against other Pied-billed Grebes and other grebe species. They prefer at least half an acre to 10 acres of nesting territory. They begin to breed when they are one to two years old. In fall and winter they may remain on a territory as long as water remains open, maintaining their pair bond possibly all winter. Others migrate south as their breeding territory freezes over. They migrate at night and need a long running start on the surface of the water while flapping their wings, in order to fly.

After a brief courtship display during the mating season, there is a 3-5 day period of nest building, and eventually 2-10 bluish-white, chalky eggs are laid in an inconspicuous, shallow, platform nest floating on the water and anchored to vegetation. The nest is seldom dry. Both parents incubate the eggs for approximately 23 days. Chicks are precocial but need to be fed. They ride on their parents back much of the time. Second broods are common and parents may care for young for over 70 days.

Pied-billed Grebes dive frequently, disappearing from view only to pop up yards away. In extreme conditions, such as in swift currents or while making quick turns during foraging, they may open and flap their wings. They also have the ability to sink gradually, changing their buoyancy by expelling air from between feather and body, and from air sacs. They sink to any desired depth, with various amounts of body, neck, and head exposed. The bill and tail disappear last. It is speculated that this behavior is used when alarmed and needing to escape.

They rarely fly but instead escape danger by diving. When threatened by a predator they may swim away, dive, or hide in vegetation with only their eyes and nostrils showing. Or they may flap their wings, fake injury, and vocalize to distract and lure predators away from their nest. They also lunge at predators to drive them away. Adults will carry threatened chicks on their back away from a predator. Chicks hold onto their parent’s tail with their bill as it swims under water for a long distance to escape danger.

Predator(s):

Glaucous-winged gulls, great horned owls, American coots, bald eagles, peregrine falcons, cottonmouth snakes, American alligators, snapping turtles, brown rats, raccoons, and mink.

Prey:

Diet varies greatly, depending on availability at any particular place and time. Fishes, such as catfish, (Ictalurus punctatus), )perch, carp and minnows (Cyprinidae), sculpins (Cottidae), killifish (Cyprinodontidae), sticklebacks (Gasterosteidae), and sunfish (Lepomis). They also consume crustaceans, especially crayfish (Cambarus spp.) and aquatic insects, especially bugs (Hemiptera), beetles (Coleoptera), and their larvae; and nymphs of dragonflies, frog and tadpoles (especially Rana), leeches, and gizzard shad (Dorosoma).

Feeding behavior

Carnivore

Feeding behavior notes:

The Pied-billed Grebe dives for its food either in open water, beneath mats of floating vegetation, or among rooted aquatic vegetation that is close to shore. Occasionally it picks flying insects off the water’s surface or may lunge for flying insects with its bill. It squats in shallow water and stirs up sediment with its feet to dislodge small fish, which it swallows head first. Fish bones eventually dissolve completely in stomach or are expelled in pellets containing their own feathers.

Like other grebes they ingest large quantities of their own feathers. Feathers dislodged while preening may be dipped in water, then swallowed. Chicks are fed feathers, often before other food items are introduced. Ingested feathers contribute substance to the stomach contents, enabling formation of pellets of bone fragments and other indigestible parts. Ejected pellets minimize the buildup of gastric parasites in the upper alimentary tract.

August - November

Migration:

Different geographic areas have different dates for the start of fall migration. Ice formation and food availability are the main reasons for migration southward. They migrate at night and land on the nearest body of water before or at dawn. Like other grebes, they need a long running start on the surface of the water while flapping their wings, in order to fly. The Pied-billed Grebes of north and northeastern North America move southward from California to Florida and the Carolinas and Mexico. In the southern part of North America and along both coasts they remain year round.

February - May

Migration:

The start of spring migration northward to breeding territories varies geographically. Timing of the start of migration is dependent on the timing of the spring thaw at breeding territories. The Pied-billed Grebe is one of the first avian species to return to breeding grounds after the thaw. April and May are the most active migratory months.

April - August

Reproduction:

A single male, or a pair, will establish a territory (nest platform, plus surrounding area with vegetation to anchor the platform, and open water for foraging and escape). Males will build an inconspicuous, shallow, wet platform of decaying vegetation from old bulrush stems, water-lily stems, cattails, small sticks, pond weed, and green scum, anchoring it in open water among reeds or rushes. A single female may visit several territories before selecting a mate. Then the pair will continue nest construction for 3 to 7 days before they mate. The nest can be approached from under water and is seldom dry. They are thought to be monogamous (at least seasonally) and a pair may build their nest where the male previously built a platform.

They do not have an elaborate courtship display like the Western and Clark’s Grebe. However they use highly variable and odd vocalizations and a visual display to communicate during courtship and in territorial matters. The male and female may vocalize in a duet. The songs vary from a call: “wup, whut, kuk”, increasing to a high pitched “kuk” and a low pitched “kow”, sometimes sounding like a cuckoo or a braying donkey!

Also at the start of breeding season, a single Pied-billed Grebe will swim around with its body feathers sleeked, tail down, neck erect and forward at a 30 degree angle, holding its head horizontal and vocalizing. Because of their secretive nature, observations of courtship displays are limited. They have been seen to approach each other, and in an upright position, stretch the neck up and slightly back exposing the black throat area. They may give a greeting call and then give single or repeated head jerks towards each other. They may pirouette. The ceremony is short, lasting 20 to 25 seconds. Pairs have also been observed approaching each other in a hunched posture, head low near the water. When collision is imminent, one or both turn, swimming parallel, body feathers sleek and bills slightly open, while one or both vocalize a greeting. As vocalization continues, one grebe (generally a female) retracts its head, keeping it low and points its tail up, thus appearing shorter. The other grebe (a male) stretches its neck almost straight up and raises its head, appearing taller. This routine is referred to as the “Triumph Ceremony” and is seen throughout the year, although more frequently in the breeding season. Pair formation may occur during migration or after arriving on nesting territories. (Some pairs winter together.)

Five to seven oval, bluish-white, chalky, 1.7 in (43 mm) long eggs are laid over 4 to 10 days. Both parents incubate the eggs for approximately 23 days. In hot climates (such as the Imperial Valley of California) incubation is necessary only at night. When a parent leaves the nest it covers the eggs with decaying vegetation. Eventually the vegetation will stain the eggs, making them even more difficult to see. The rotting vegetation also raises the temperature in the nest preventing chilling of the eggs.

Hatching is spread over two to seven days. The chicks are somewhat precocial, being mobile, downy, and able to follow their parents for food. Within one hour of hatching the still wet chick will climb onto its parents back. Chicks are also able to swim when an hour old. The chicks are carried on the parent’s back and brooded extensively during their first week. They do not find their own food, but will move to a parent offering food, or peck at the adult’s bill. Parents break prey items into small pieces for young chicks. By day 8 to 10, chicks try to catch live fishes and insects, with limited success. By the second week, the chick can turn the fish, swallowing it headfirst. For the first 3 weeks they do not wander far from their platform nest. After 3 weeks the family will venture away from the platform to forage for prey items. Chicks become very vocal when begging for food by their second week, and get even more intense as they age. By day 28 they begin to feed themselves, but continue to beg as long as a parent is in sight, up to 68 days. Fish that is offered by parent is swallowed head- or tail- first during the first week.

Parental care lasts from 4 to 11 weeks. A second brood is common, even when the first brood is successful. Parents may be feeding both broods simultaneously and competition between the two broods has been observed, with the speculation that this may speed up the independence of the chicks.

Listing Status:

Common and widespread in western United States. Endangered in Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Kentucky, Massachusetts and New Jersey. Threatened in Illinois and Vermont. Rare to uncommon in New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, and West Virginia.

Loss of wetlands, degradation of habitat, and entanglement in fishing lines are the main threats. They are also affected by poisoning from pesticides and other contaminants, such as DDE and PCB. Accidental shooting may occur when they are mistaken for ducks. Collision with man-made objects like television towers also is a problem. The Pied-billed Grebe is protected by the US Migratory Treaty Act, but they are not listed on the US Federal List or by CITES. It is listed as a species of Least Concern by the IUCN.
Click on an image below to view a larger version in the SIMoN Photo Library. You will also be able to view important information on each photo such as photographer, date, caption and more.
Ehrlich, P., D.S. Dobkin, and D. Wheye. 1988. The Birders Handbook: A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds. Simon & Schuster Inc., New York. 785 p.
Roberson, D. 2002. Monterey Birds 2nd edition. Monterey Peninsula Audubon Society, Carmel, CA. 536 p.
Sibley, D.A. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Bird. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 545 p.
WWW
Alaska SeaLife Center
http://www.alaskasealife.org

WWW
Animal Diversity Web http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Anthopleura_xanthogrammica.html

WWW
Cornell Lab of Ornithology
All About Birds
http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/search