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Grebes Of North America

There are over twenty species of grebes worldwide, but only a few live in the U.S. and Canada. Grebes are widespread throughout North America and can be seen in many locations. In winter, grebes can be seen along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

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 safe. They can also lower themselves in the water by altering their specific gravity. This allows them to have their head or bill showing.

Grebes prefer to stay away from saltwater and prefer fresh water, which can be found in lakes and ponds.

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Photo by Ott Rebane Flick CC by 2.0

Several grebes are fully aquatic species and do not set foot on land in their lives. Some grebes species build their nests on the water, tethered to a nearby overhang, or grow from below.

The floating nests serve a few purposes. First, they do not get flooded, like nests on land, but float on the water.

The nests are made out of vegetation, creating heat as it rots. This heat helps to incubate the eggs.

Grebes have short wings and are not good flyers. Their feet, rather than being fully webbed, have broad lobes. The global membrane outlines the three front toes. Grebes have legs that are attached far back to the body. This does not allow them to move well on land.

They also have short tails and are known as tailless water birds. The feathers are vestigial and almost invisible.

The plumage of grebes is striking and colorful. Grebes have an elaborate courtship and are thought to have some of the most fantastic courtship rituals.

Some species of grebes eat their feathers, although it is unknown why. Their stomachs can contain large numbers of feathers. Others, such as the Western grebe, run side by side over the water with their mate. Other species use songs that the male and female sing as a duet.

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Least Grebe

Photo by Dan Van Den Broek Flickr CC by 2.0

The least grebe measures 8-10 inches (20-25 cm) and has a gray head, neck, and underparts in summer. They are a buff color on the flanks, which are barred.  

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 ponds, preferring them to be overgrown. They use ponds and pools 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. The eggs typically hatch around 21 days; the male and female look after the eggs while incubating.

The least grebe can be found in Texas, where they also breed. The least grebe stays local and does not migrate. They have a distinctive sound, much like a clanging note.

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Pied-billed Grebe

Photo by Becky Matsubara Flickr CC by CC by 2.0

The pied-billed grebe is a large, chunky species measuring 12-15 inches (30-38 cm). Their name comes from their large, stout, conical bill. They are brown on their upper in summer with buff or barred brown flanks.  

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 emergent and aquatic vegetation during the hotter months. Still, 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 have between five to seven eggs, which come in white, green, or light blue. The male and female share incubation duties and last 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.

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Horned Grebe

Photo by Connor Man Flickr CC by 2.0

The horned grebe is strikingly beautiful and colorful.  The horned grebe measures 12-14 inches (31-36 cm). 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 white fore neck and bottoms in the colder winter months and are darker above. They have a thick, pointed, straight bill.

In summer, the horned grebe likes to live in freshwater ponds and protected bays and lakes. In winter, however, they prefer inshore saltwater, closer but not on the coast.  They breed in overgrown bays, marshes, and lakes between May and June.  

There is usually one nest in a pond. They use a floating nest, which they tether to plants in the water. The male and female look after the eggs, which hatch between 20-25 days. The 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.

The horned grebe breeds in western Canada, except in the bitterly cold north. In winter, they migrate to the northern United States to the Atlantic coast, the Gulf Coast, and California on the Pacific coast.

They eat a variety of aquatic insects along with crustaceans and small fishes in the winter. The horned grebe makes many different squealing noises.

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Red-necked Grebe

Photo by Alaska Region U.S. Fish & Wildlife Flickr CC by 1.0

The red-necked grebe gets its name from its distinctive rust-red neck. They have a black cap and a silver face in summer. However, in winter, their neck becomes dusky, and their face becomes whitish.  

The red-necked grebe is a medium-sized grebe measuring 15 1/2 inches (40-46 cm). They have a sizeable yellowish bill that is straight or downcurved and tapers to a point.

They can be found around marshes, slow-moving rivers, and lakes with emergent vegetation in summer. Still, in winter, they can be found around inshore saltwater coastal regions, sometimes many miles inshore.

They breed from May-June in lakes and marshes. Both members of the pair share incubation duties, which last 23 days. They lay between 3-7 white eggs in a nest of vegetation around marshland plants.

They are a noisy breed of grebe and make wailing noises and a loud keck-keck sound during the breeding season. They eat crayfish, tadpoles, minnows, small fish, crustaceans, and aquatic insects.

The red-necked grebe can be found from Alaska to the Great Lakes and down to the United States border. During winter, they may migrate to the Atlantic coast and be located on the Pacific coast down to California.

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Eared Grebe

Photo by Dan Flickr CC by 2.0

The eared grebe is slightly smaller than the horned grebe at 11-13 inches (28-33 cm). Unlike the horned grebe, they have a black head, breast, and neck. Their flanks are a rust color.

They have a gold fans on the sides of their head. In winter, the rusty flanks turn darker, with the underneath white. They also have a dusky color at the front of their neck in winter and a dark cap. They have a bill that is uptilted.

The eared grebe lives on the coast and in more prominent lakes in winter, but in summer can be found in marshes and the shallower parts of ponds. They have a floating nest made of soggy plants, and many nests can be found together.  

They lay between 1-6 bluish or greenish-white eggs with an incubation period between 20 and 22 days. Both males and females look after the eggs during this period.  

Breeding happens between May and June in freshwater lakes, and nests can be found close together, sometimes with other species.

The eared grebe can be found in western Canada and the United States. They migrate down into warmer climates of Mexico and the gulf coast states.

Their sound consists of loud notes and a quiet sound like a poo-cep or co-eeeek. The eared grebe feeds mainly on aquatic insects during the summer and crustaceans in the winter.

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Western Grebe

Photo by Becky Matsubara Flickr CC by 2.0

The Western Grebe is the largest grebe species in North America, with measurements of 22-29 inches (56-74cm). 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 fore neck 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 do eat more fish than other species.

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Clark’s Grebe

Photo by Becky Matsubara Flickr CC by CC by 2.0

Clark’s grebe is very similar to the Western grebe. The size is also very similar at 22 inches (56cm). The main difference between the Western Grebe and Clark’s grebe is that the black cap does not extend below the eye on Clark’s grebe. The bill is also more yellow-orange on Clark’s grebe.

Their habitat is also very similar, with summer spent on lakes and coastal areas during the winter. They can be found more in the northern and eastern parts of the range.

Their sounds, breeding, nests, and incubation period are so similar that they were only recognized as a separate species from the Western grebe in the 1980s.

For more information on grebes and other birds of North America, I recommend the following field guides.

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