By Russ Chappell
Consider the Pie-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps). Common across North America, these small brown birds have unusually thick bills which turn silver and black in summer. They’re expert divers, able to reach depths of over 20 feet and can remain submerged for up to 30 seconds, especially if startled or in danger. They frequent sluggish rivers, freshwater marshes, lakes, and estuaries, using their chunky bills to feed on large crustaceans and a variety of fish, amphibians, insects, and other invertebrates. They rarely fly and often hide amid vegetation. Their loud, far-reaching call “whooping kuk-kuk-cow-cow-cow-cowp-cowp“ is hard to forget once you have heard it.
Two to ten, 1.5” to 2”, bluish white to greenish white eggs are laid in a bowl shaped floating nest, usually situated among tall emergent vegetation and sometimes among lower-growing plants. The young leave the nest shortly after birth, climbing onto the adults back where they brood for their first week of life. The adults still dive with the young aboard, holding them under their wings.
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. The ingested plumage appears to form a sieve-like plug preventing hard, potentially harmful prey parts from passing into the intestine, and helps form indigestible items into pellets to regurgitate.
The included photos of a juvenile diving and dining at Watson Lake is a common sight and provides a brief glimpse into the life of these remarkable little brown birds. So, if you’re looking for an interesting and unique bird experience, spend some time at Watson Lake and perhaps one of our Grebes will put on a show for you.
Visit Prescott Audubon Society at PrescottAudubon.Org. Contact them at Contact@PrescottAudubon.Org.
Russ Chappell is a member of the Prescott Audubon Society and supports the Chapter as webmaster and as needed. A retired helicopter pilot, he spent most of his life avoiding birds, now he spends time photographing and studying them. He blames Eric Moore for this affliction.