There are over twenty species of grebes worldwide, but only seven live in the U.S. and Canada. Grebes are widespread throughout North America and can be seen in many habitats.
There are seven species of grebe in North America. These are the least grebe, pied-billed grebe, horned grebe, red-necked grebe, eared grebe, Western grebe, and Clark’s grebe.
Grebes are fantastic swimmers and divers. Grebes expel air from the body and their feathers to swim below the surface. This is an excellent technique for keeping away from predators. They can also lower themselves in the water by altering their gravity. This allows them to have their head or bill showing while their bodies are underwater.
Least Grebe (Tachybaptus dominicus) is the smallest Grebe in North America, measuring 20-25 cm long (8-10 inches.) They have a gray head, neck, and underparts in summer. They are a buff color on the flanks, which are barred. Its compact body is adorned with distinctive features, including a striking black crown and nape, contrasting with its white face and underparts. A subtle chestnut patch on its neck adds a touch of color to its plumage.
The Least Grebe has yellow eyes and a dark bill which is very small. In winter, the Least Grebe becomes lighter in color with a white throat.
They can be found in overgrown, which they use for breeding between March and September. Their nests are a mass of vegetation found around pond growth. They usually lay between 2 to 7 white eggs, which typically hatch around 21 days. Both males and females will incubate the eggs.
Least grebe can be found in Texas, where they also breed. They stay local and do not migrate. They have a distinctive sound of a series of high-pitched whistles.
The Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) is a large, chunky species measuring 30-38 cm (12-15 inches). Their name comes from their large, stout, conical bill. They are brown on their upper in summer with buff or barred brown flanks.
Its most distinguishing feature is the conspicuous, black, and stout bill with a pale band encircling it horizontally, giving the bird its name. The throat and bill are white in winter, but in summer, the neck has a black patch, and the bill is pale with a vertical black bar. They have an eye ring that is pale throughout the year.
The Pied-billed Grebe lives in ponds, slow-moving streams, swamps, and shallow bays of lakes with aquatic vegetation during the hotter months. In winter, they prefer larger freshwater areas and saltwater estuaries, bays, and tidal creeks.
They breed in freshwater ponds, bays, and lakes between April and May. They use a floating nest of plant material that is attached to vegetation. They lay between five to seven eggs, which come in hues of white, green, or light blue. The male and female share incubation duties lasting between 21 and 24 days.
The Pied-billed Grebe breeds throughout the United States and up into southern Canada. The Pied-billed Grebe does migrate, leaving when ice forms in the northern and central parts of their range in winter. They return in spring when the ice starts to melt.
They can be extremely noisy in spring, with a loud voice. Their call sounds like kow-kow-kow repeated a dozen times, which speeds up to kow-uh by the end of the dozen or so calls.
Horned Grebe (Podiceps auritus) is strikingly beautiful and colorful. The horned grebe measures 31-36 cm (12-14 inches ). They have a golden crest extending from their eyes in summer with a black head. Their neck and underparts are rust-red. They have a thick, pointed, straight bill. The name refers to the two ornate, golden-yellow tufts or horns of feathers that adorn its head.
In summer, Horned Grebe lives in freshwater ponds and protected bays and lakes. In winter, however, they prefer inshore saltwater, closer to the coast. They breed in overgrown bays, marshes, and lakes between May and June.
Horned Grebes are highly adapted to their aquatic environments, featuring lobed toes and a streamlined body that facilitates expert diving and swimming capabilities.
There is usually one floating nest in a pond, which they tether to plants in the water. The male and female look after the eggs, which hatch between 20-25 days. A horned Grebe nest can have up to 10 eggs at once, although this can also be as low as 3. Two females may use the same nest when there are more than five eggs. Eggs are usually bluish-white.
Horned Grebe breeds in western Canada, except in the bitterly cold north. In winter, they migrate to the northern United States on the Atlantic coast, the Gulf Coast, and to California.
They eat a variety of aquatic insects along with crustaceans and small fishes in the winter. The horned grebe makes many different squealing noises.
The Red-necked Grebe (Podiceps grisegena) known for its distinctive rust-red neck, boasts a black cap and a silver face during the summer season. However, in winter, its neck takes on a dusky hue, and its face becomes whitish.
This medium-sized grebe measures approximately 40-46 cm (15 1/2 inches). It possesses a substantial yellowish bill that is either straight or slightly downcurved, tapering to a point.
In the summer months, you can spot them around marshes, slow-moving rivers, and lakes adorned with emergent vegetation. During winter, they tend to inhabit inshore saltwater coastal regions, often venturing miles inland.
Breeding season for Red-necked Grebes typically falls between May and June, with nests located in lakes and marshes. Both members of the pair share incubation duties, which span 23 days. They typically lay between 3-7 white eggs in nests constructed from vegetation found amidst marshland plants.
These grebes are known for their noisy behavior, emitting wailing sounds and a loud keck-keck call during the breeding season. Their diet comprises crayfish, tadpoles, minnows, small fish, crustaceans, and aquatic insects.
The Red-necked Grebe’s range spans from Alaska to the Great Lakes, extending down to the United States border. In the winter months, they may migrate to the Atlantic coast and can also be found along the Pacific coast, reaching as far south as California.
The Eared Grebe (Podiceps nigricollis) is a bird slightly smaller than the Horned Grebe, measuring between 28-33 cm (11-13 inches) in length. Distinguished by its black head, breast, and neck, Eared Grebes sport rust-colored flanks. In addition, they have striking golden fans adorning the sides of their heads. During the winter season, their rusty flanks take on a darker hue, while their undersides become white. In this season, they also feature a dusky coloration at the front of their necks and a dark cap. Their bills are uptilted.
Eared Grebes exhibit varied habitat preferences, residing on the coast and in larger lakes during the winter, while seeking out marshes and the shallower areas of ponds during the summer. They construct floating nests from soggy plants, often with multiple nests clustered together.
Nestling between 1-6 bluish or greenish-white eggs, these grebes oversee the incubation period, which spans 20 to 22 days. Both male and female grebes share the responsibility of caring for the eggs. Breeding activity occurs from May to June in freshwater lakes, where nests can be found closely situated, sometimes alongside nests of other bird species.
The Eared Grebe’s habitat extends across western Canada and the United States. During migration, they head to warmer climates in Mexico and the Gulf Coast states. Their vocalizations encompass loud notes as well as a softer sound resembling “poo-cep” or “co-eeeek.” Eared Grebes primarily feed on aquatic insects during the summer and shift their diet to crustaceans in the winter months.
The Western Grebe (Aechmophorus occidentalis) is the largest grebe species in North America, measuring 56-74cm (22-29 inches) long. They are easily identified by their size, long necks, and upturned bills.
They are dark gray on their upper parts and the back of their neck, which leads to a black cap. The black hat extends below the eye, which it doesn’t do on the smaller Clark’s grebe. The Western Grebe has a white foreneck and face.
The Western grebe can be found in coastal saltwater bays and freshwater lakes during winter. They can also be found in freshwater lakes in summer. They breed on freshwater lakes between May and June. They lay 3 or 4 bluish-white eggs. The incubation period is 23 days, with the male and female looking after the eggs.
They can be found on the lakes west of Canada and the United States and migrate from British Columbia to as far down as Mexico.
They make a kr-r-rick or creek-creek sound, which is easily recognizable. As with other grebes, they eat aquatic insects during the summer and crustaceans during the winter. They eat more fish than other species.
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Clark’s Grebe (Aechmophorus clarkii) closely resembles the Western Grebe, with a nearly identical size of around 56 cm (22 inches). The most prominent distinguishing feature between the two lies in the extent of the black cap: in Clark’s Grebe, the black cap does not extend below the eye. Additionally, Clark’s Grebe boasts a bill that tends to be more yellow-orange in color.
Their habitat preferences closely mirror those of the Western Grebe. During the summer, both species can be found residing on lakes, while they migrate to coastal areas in the winter. However, Clark’s Grebe tends to inhabit the northern and eastern regions of their range.
The similarities between Clark’s Grebe and Western Grebe are so profound that they were only officially recognized as separate species in the 1980s. This close resemblance encompasses their vocalizations, breeding behaviors, nesting habits, and the incubation period for their eggs.
Habitats Of Grebes in North America
Grebes, much like quails, are adaptable birds that inhabit diverse landscapes across North America, showcasing behaviors tailored to their specific ecological niches.
Grasslands and Wetlands
Many grebe species prefer habitats characterized by freshwater lakes, ponds, marshes, and wetlands. These environments provide a wealth of aquatic vegetation and abundant prey, such as fish and invertebrates. Western Grebes (Aechmophorus occidentalis), for example, are often seen in large bodies of water, especially during the breeding season. These locations offer protection and sustenance, allowing these birds to build floating nests among the reeds.
Coastal regions, both along the ocean and inland saltwater bays, attract various grebe species. Western Grebes, as well as Clark’s Grebes (Aechmophorus clarkii), are known to inhabit coastal areas during winter. Their size, long necks, and upturned bills make them well-suited to forage in these aquatic environments. These birds often nest in inland freshwater lakes during the breeding season.
Mountainous regions with high-altitude lakes are favored habitats for the Mountain Grebe (Podiceps occipitalis). These lakes provide the necessary isolation and tranquility for breeding pairs. The clear, pristine waters of mountain lakes offer excellent visibility for hunting aquatic prey.
Distribution Of Grebes in North America
Grebes are aquatic birds found not only in North America but also in various parts of the world. However, their distribution in North America is notable for its diversity.
- Western Grebe (Aechmophorus occidentalis): Western Grebes are the largest grebe species in North America, measuring 22-29 inches (56-74 cm). They are commonly found in coastal saltwater bays and freshwater lakes during winter. Breeding occurs on freshwater lakes between May and June. Western Grebes can be observed from British Columbia to as far south as Mexico.
- Clark’s Grebe (Aechmophorus clarkii): Similar in size to the Western Grebe at 22 inches (56 cm), Clark’s Grebe primarily inhabits coastal regions during the winter and nests in freshwater lakes during the breeding season. They are more common in the northern and eastern parts of their range.
- Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps): Pied-billed Grebes are smaller, measuring around 13-15 inches (33-38 cm). They inhabit a wide range of aquatic environments, including marshes, lakes, and slow-moving rivers. Their distribution covers much of North America, from Canada to Central America.
- Horned Grebe (Podiceps auritus): Horned Grebes are similar in size to the Pied-billed Grebe, measuring 13-15 inches (33-38 cm). They frequent northern regions and can be found in freshwater lakes and coastal areas during winter. Breeding occurs on northern lakes.
- Eared Grebe (Podiceps nigricollis): Slightly smaller than the Horned Grebe at 11-13 inches (28-33 cm), Eared Grebes are known for their distinctive black head, breast, and neck. They inhabit coastal regions and larger lakes in winter, while their breeding season leads them to marshes and ponds. They migrate from western Canada to the Gulf Coast states in winter.
Diet Of Grebes in North America
Grebes exhibit a primarily carnivorous diet, emphasizing fish and aquatic invertebrates. Their dietary preferences and foraging techniques are tailored to their aquatic habitats.
- Fish Predators: Grebes are skilled underwater swimmers and divers, using their strong legs and lobed feet to pursue fish beneath the surface. Western Grebes and Pied-billed Grebes, for example, primarily feed on fish.
- Invertebrate Foragers: Some grebe species, like the Eared Grebe, have a penchant for aquatic invertebrates, including crustaceans and insects. During the breeding season, they shift their diet towards these small prey items.
- Amphibious Fare: While not the primary component of their diet, grebes may occasionally consume small amphibians or reptiles when opportunities arise.
- Plant Material: Although less common, grebes may consume aquatic plant material, particularly during the non-breeding season.
Their diet is opportunistic and dependent on the seasonal availability of prey in their chosen habitats.
Behavior Of Grebes in North America
Grebes are generally solitary birds, although they may form small groups or pairs during the breeding season. They are known for their striking courtship displays, including synchronized dances and vocalizations.
Diving and Swimming
Grebes are exceptional swimmers and divers, capable of staying submerged for extended periods. Their waterproof feathers and buoyant bodies make them well-suited for underwater foraging.
Nesting and Parental Care
Grebes build floating nests on the water, often constructed from aquatic vegetation. They are known for their careful attention to their eggs and chicks. Both parents typically share incubation duties and provide care to their young.
Grebes are not particularly vocal birds, but they may produce calls during courtship and territorial displays. These calls can vary in pitch and frequency.
Some grebe species in North America are migratory, moving between breeding and wintering grounds. They undertake these migrations to find suitable habitats and prey resources.
Grebes employ various strategies to evade predators, including their remarkable diving ability. When threatened, they can quickly dive underwater to escape, resurfacing at a safe distance.
Similar to quails, grebes exhibit behaviors and habitat preferences that align with their ecological niche and seasonal requirements. Their adaptability to different aquatic environments contributes to their diverse distribution across North America.
References And Further Reading
Waterbirds of North America by Kenn Kaufman, Harold Holt, and Kimball L. Garrett
This comprehensive guide provides extensive information on waterbirds in North America, including grebes. It covers identification, behavior, and distribution, making it an invaluable resource for bird enthusiasts.
National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America by Jon L. Dunn and Jonathan Alderfer
This field guide by National Geographic is richly illustrated and describes various bird species, including North American grebes. It’s user-friendly and a favorite among birdwatchers.
Birds of North America by Kenn Kaufman
Kenn Kaufman’s field guide offers detailed insights into North American birds, including grebes. It includes range maps and thorough species descriptions, making it suitable for both beginners and experienced birders.
Birds of North America by Fred J. Alsop III
This comprehensive field guide covers North American birds, including grebes. It provides in-depth information on identification, behavior, and habitat preferences, enhancing your birdwatching experience.
The Sibley Guide to Birds by David Allen Sibley
David Sibley’s renowned guide features illustrations and descriptions of North American bird species, including grebes. Its detailed artwork and annotations are particularly helpful for bird identification.
Grebes of Our World: From Australasia to Africa and the Americas by Chris Taylor
While this book discusses grebes worldwide, it offers valuable insights into the biology, behavior, and conservation of North American grebes. It’s a great resource for those interested in global grebe diversity.
The Grebes: Podicipedidae by Frank S. Todd
This scientific reference book explores the biology, taxonomy, and behavior of grebes globally, including those found in North America. It’s an authoritative resource for researchers and serious bird enthusiasts.
Bryan Harding is a member of the American Society of Mammalogists and a member of the American Birding Association. Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Bryan serves as owner, writer, and publisher of North American Nature.