Pied-billed Grebe | Life Histories of North American Birds | A.C. Bent
Feather Pic Arthur Cleveland Bent

Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds
A chapter from the electronic book: Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds

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Pied-billed Grebe
Podilymbus podiceps

[Published in 1919: Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 107: 39-47]

This widely distributed and well-known bird, the little "dabchick," is practically resident, or nearly so, throughout the southern portion of its range, though probably there is a general movement southward in winter and the summer residents are therefore not the same individuals that are seen in that region in winter. The dates given below show that this grebe is an early migrant, pushing northward soon after the ice has left our northern ponds and streams. Its favorite haunts when migrating are small sheltered ponds and streams where it can paddle about in comfort and seek shelter, when danger threatens, among the bushes, reeds or grasses which line the shores or where it may hide under the protecting vegetation of overhanging banks. In such situations it seems to vanish mysteriously, skulking in some sheltered nook, with only its bill above water, well deserving its common name of "water witch."

Courtship.--Audubon's (1840) spirited drawing of the "pied-billed dabchick," as he calls it, shows this bird in the midst of active courtship, which is a lively performance; the ardent suitor rushes about in the most excited manner, splashing along over the surface of the water or repeatedly diving below it and coming up again near his intended mate and voicing his admiration in a variety of soft cooing notes.

Nesting.--As soon as their love affairs are settled the grebes begin to search for a suitable nesting site. This is generally well chosen and the nest more successfully concealed than is the case with the other grebes. The nature of the nesting site varies considerably in different localities.

Mr. William Brewster (1906) describes a former nesting site of the pied-billed grebe in Massachusetts as follows:

One June 13, 1891, Mr. Walter Faxon found a number of pied-billed grebes breeding at Great Meadow. There can be little doubt that they had been established there for some time previous to this, for the shallow brush-grown reservoir which they inhabited had then been in existence for nearly 20 years. On the occasion just mentioned, Mr. Faxon saw or heard at least six or eight different birds, one of which was accompanied by chicks only a few days old, and on April 27, 1892, he discovered a nest containing five fresh eggs.

During the following eight years Great Meadow was frequently visited by our local ornithologists, and the manners and customs of the grebes were closely studied. One or two birds often appeared in the pond as soon as it was free from ice--this sometimes happening before the close of March--and by the middle of April the full colony was usually reestablished. It was difficult to judge as to how many members it contained, for they were given to haunting the flooded thickets, and we seldom saw more than three or four of them on any one occasion; but at times, especially in the early morning and late afternoon when the weather was clear and calm their loud cuckoo-like calls and odd whinnying outcries would come in quick succession from so many different parts of the pond that one might have thought there were scores of birds. Probably the total number of pairs did not ever exceed a dozen, while during some seasons there were apparently not more than five or six. They built their interesting floating nests in water a foot or more in depth, anchoring them to the stems of the sweet gale and button bushes, and laying from five to eight eggs, which usually were covered by the bird whenever she left them. Although a few sets of eggs were taken by collectors, the grebes reared a fair number of young every season, and without doubt they would have continued to resort to Great Meadow for an indefinite period had not the reservoir been abandoned, and its water almost completely drained in the autumn of 1901; since then the birds have ceased, of course, to frequent the place.

The pied-billed grebe is not easily driven from its favorite nesting haunts by the encroachments of civilization and is occasionally found nesting in suitable localities in thickly settled regions or near our large cities. A striking instance of this is shown in Mr. Clinton G. Abbott's (1907) account of the nesting of this species in the Hackensack Meadows, near New York City, in 1906, where an extensive cat-tail swamp offered a congenial home for grebes and gallinules.

Mr. Arthur T. Wayne (1910) says of its breeding habits in South Carolina:

This is an abundant permanent resident, breeding in fresh-water ponds or large rice-field reservoirs, where the water is generally from 4 to 10 feet deep. The birds are mated by the last of February, and the nests, which are commenced about the middle of March, are composed of decayed vegetable matter anchored to buttonwood bushes or reeds.

In the North Dakota sloughs, in 1901, we found the pied-billed grebe nesting abundantly, in company with canvasbacks, redheads, ruddy ducks, and coots, and examined a large number of nests, which may be considered as fairly typical of its normal nesting habits throughout the greater portion of its breeding range. The depth of water in which the nest is located varies greatly, but most of the nests are placed in water not over 3 feet deep. The nests are usually anchored to, or built up around or among, dead or growing reeds or rushes. Sometimes they are well concealed in thick clumps of reeds, but usually they can be easily seen, although not so conspicuous as those of the horned or eared grebes. The nests are generally scattered and only a few pairs of birds were found in each slough. When located in deep water the nest is strictly a floating affair, but otherwise it is more often partially connected with the bottom. A large amount of material is collected and piled up into a bulky mass, mostly below the surface of the water, often large enough to fill a bushel basket; on top of this, above the water, a smaller and neater nest is built. The material consists of whatever the bird can conveniently find in the vicinity in the way of decayed vegetable matter, dead reeds, flags, rushes, or grasses; sometimes fresh, green flags are mixed in with the rubbish and often the whole structure is plastered together with a quantity of soft, green vegetable scum which grows in stagnant water. This wet and slimy structure is built up but a few inches above the water, usually from 2 to 4 inches, and measures about a foot in diameter; the nest cavity is but slightly hollowed and the eggs are partially buried in the soft material.

Eggs.--The pied-billed grebe lays from 3 to 10 eggs, but the extremes are rare and the set usually consists of from 5 to 7 eggs. In shape the eggs are "elliptical ovate" or "elliptical oval," sometimes almost "fusiform." The shell is generally smooth, with a slight luster, but sometimes dotted with small excrescences or lumps. The color of the clean, freshly laid egg is dull bluish white or pale olive white, but it soon becomes stained or clouded with various buffy shades; some sets are uniformly stained as dark as "wood-brown" or "Isabella color"; generally more or less mud and bits of nesting material sticks to the egg, giving it a mottled appearance.

The measurements of 48 eggs in the United States National Museum collection average 43.4 by 30 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 47 by 30, 44 by 32, 39 by 29.5, and 44 by 28 millimeters.

Mr. C. H. Pease made some interesting observations on the nesting operations of this species at Canaan, Connecticut, during May and June, 1913.  He sent the results of his observations to Dr. Louis B. Bishop, who has given them to me. On May 22 he found the nest completed and the first egg laid; on May 28 the eighth and last egg was laid, one having been laid each day. The first two eggs hatched on June 15, one in the forenoon and one in the afternoon; and the last egg hatched at 9:15 in the morning of June 21; the record shows that the period of incubation, in this case, was from 23 to 24 days. On June 22, the day after the last egg hatched, only one young bird was left in the nest. On July 3 he saw the whole family of eight, "half grown in less than two weeks."

Both sexes incubate. So far as I know only one brood is raised in a season; but there are some very early and very late dates for nesting which may indicate two broods. The question of whether this grebe regularly incubates its eggs or leaves them to be hatched by the warmth of decaying vegetation has provoked considerable discussion. Like all the smaller grebes, it frequently covers its eggs, with the soft material of which the nest is composed, when it leaves its nest; but this is not always done and often, when the bird is surprised and forced to leave in a hurry, it does not have time to do so. The pied-billed grebe is seldom seen sitting on its nest. I have examined a great many nests and have attempted to approach cautiously enough to catch a glimpse of the incubating bird, but have never been able to see one on its nest; some other observers have been more fortunate. I believe that it incubates regularly during the greater part of the time. It is one of the shyest of the grebes; it slips away from its nest on the slightest alarm and keeps out of sight. I have watched for an hour or more within sight of half a dozen nests and not caught a glimpse of a single grebe, although they were undoubtedly watching me all the time.

Young.--The young are very precocious and leave the nest soon after they are hatched; usually some of the young are swimming about before the last of the eggs have hatched. They are expert swimmers and divers, by instinct, though they cannot remain under water more than a few seconds. I have taken recently hatched chicks out of a nest, which were too young to have been taught by their parents, and seen them dive and swim away or hide among the reeds with only their little bills protruding above the surface. Sometimes the parent bird carries them on her back where they cling tenaciously while she dives and brings them up again, none the worse for their ducking. They are truly little "water witches" by inheritance. Rev. Manley B. Townsend writes to me that, on June 24, 1910, he saw an adult, with young, chasing a muskrat on the surface of a slough in Nebraska, and raises the question whether these animals, which are generally considered to be strictly vegetarian in their habits, kill young grebes. Undoubtedly many are killed by pickerel or other large fishes and by snapping turtles or large frogs.

Dr. Arthur A. Allen (1914) has written a very interesting account of his studies into the family affairs of the pied-billed grebe, illustrating it with some remarkable photographs of this shy bird. It is well worth reading or quoting in full, but space will permit only the following extract:

I was first directed to the spot by a friend who said that "coots" were nesting there. I was not a little surprised, therefore, when, after wading for a short distance along the edge of the pond, my attention was attracted by a splash in the water ahead, accompanied by a startled note like the syllable 'keck,' and a few seconds later a grebe bobbed into sight. Instead of immediately sinking again, as one learns to expect of a grebe, it rose up on its legs and began beating upon the water with its wings. Such behavior bespoke something very unusual happening in the near-by nest. I looked just in time to see the last of the striped young scramble from it and disappear beneath the water. Then ensued a series of maneuvers on the part of the bird which were evidently intended to distract my attention. Each appearance above the water was announced by a shake of the body, followed by a beating of the wings on the surface, and a flip of the feet as it again dove, which sometimes sprayed water for more than a yard. This performance took place within 10 or 15 feet of me, and sometimes the bird swam in even closer. At such times it rested rather high on the water, holding its tail, if we may speak of it as such, erect, and nervously flashing the light areas on the flanks, as do the gallinules.

Meanwhile the young birds had made their way toward the center of the pond. The largest could not have been more than a few days old, and yet, when I tried to catch them, they showed all the ingenuity of the old birds, diving, doubling, swimming with just the bill showing, or lying concealed in a bunch of water weeds, with only the nostrils above the surface. Had the water been less clear I probably should have been unable to catch any of them; but, as it was, I could follow them as they escaped in various directions. They were even conspicuous when attempting to hide. I was reminded of the old story of the ostrich which buried its head in the sand to escape detection; for, in spite of the fact that only the bill was exposed above the water, the entire body was nearly as conspicuous as though floating on the surface. In diving, as in floating, the wings of the young projected nearly at right angles from their bodies, even more so than in other precocial birds.

The largest of the young had already reached the open water beyond my depth, and when I returned to the shore the old grebe swam toward it, changing her alarm note of 'keck, keck' to a softer 'cup, cup,' as though calling to it. Swimming beyond it, she turned her tail toward it and slightly raised her wings. This was the signal for the young one to crawl upon her back, which it repeatedly attempted to do until its mother, disgusted with such clumsiness, clapped her wing on its neck and started off at a great rate for the other end of the pond. When far enough away she checked her speed and gave it another chance. Then with her wobbly passenger she continued to the end of the pond, where she was joined by her mate. Here they sported about for some time, the young bird plunging from the back of one and swimming across to the other, all seemingly forgetful of the rest of the family. Finally they disappeared into the rushes, and I continued my course around the pond.

Plumages.--The downy young is prettily and quite strikingly marked with black and white; it is mainly glossy black above, with longitudinal stripes of grayish white on the neck and back; the crown is black, more or less variegated with "walnut brown" or "burnt umber," sometimes in the form of a central patch, and with two broad superciliary stripes of white meeting on the forehead and two white stripes above them; the sides of the neck and throat are variegated with black and white and the sides of the body are more or less washed with dusky; the under parts are grayish white, lightest on the belly. The bird is fully half grown before the real plumage appears, which shows first on the breast and then in the wings; it is nearly full-grown before the down entirely disappears. The large series of specimens in the United States National Museum collection seems to indicate that the full adult plumage is acquired during the first year. Many young birds retain the black and white stripes on the head until late in October, though some have completely changed before that time into the brown plumage of the first winter, in which the bright russet color of the neck, breast, and flanks is conspicuous. The black throat of the adult and the black band on the bill are acquired just prior to the breeding season. Some adults show traces of the black throat in the fall or have it well developed, but partially concealed by the whitish tips of the feathers.

Food.--The pied-billed grebe feeds largely on animal matter such as small fish, snails, small frogs, tadpoles, aquatic worms, leeches, and water insects; it also eats the seeds and soft parts of aquatic plants to some extent. Balls of its own feathers often occur in its stomach. Although this grebe is more essentially a fresh water bird than the other species, Audubon (1840) states that when its favorite ponds and streams are frozen over, it may occasionally be seen in bays and estuaries searching for shrimps and fry.

Behavior.--This species is less often seen in flight than the other grebes, for it seems to prefer to escape by diving or skulking, but it is well capable of rapid flight, when necessary, in spite of its small wings. When rising from the water it runs along the surface for a long distance, beating the water with its broad paddles until it can rise into the air, when it flies swiftly away in a straight line, moving its wings very quickly and with its neck and feet outstretched. When migrating it often flies high in the air. I seems to be incapable of rising from the ground and its movements on dry land are so awkward that it spends very little time out of the water; although it sometimes crawls out onto lily pads or marshy shores to sun itself or preen its feathers. The water is its natural element, where it is completely at home. I can remember distinctly how much ammunition I wasted in my old muzzle-loading gun, when I was a boy, in vain attempts to bag the elusive "hell-diver," as we used to call it. My attempts were seldom successful and I used to think that it dove at the flash of the gun; with a modern gun and nitro powder the results might have been different. Anything which even looked like a duck was considered legitimate game in those days and the silky grebes' breasts were proudly presented by my girl friends. The pied-billed grebe is no less expert than others of its tribe in diving; ordinarily, in a hurried dive, it plunges forward and disappears like a flash, swimming away for a long distance under water, to appear suddenly at some unexpected spot or perhaps to vanish and keep out of sight; it also has the power to so contract its displacement that it can swim along with only its head and neck above water, or it can gradually sink down backward, like a disappearing frog, without making a ripple. I have always supposed that the grebes do not use thier wings under water, but Audubon (1840) had a good chance to study them in captivity and says:

We placed them in a large tub of water, where we could see all their sub-aqueous movements. They swam round the sides of the tub in the manner of the puffin, moving their wings in accordance with their feet, and continued so a much longer time than one could suppose it possible for them to remain under water, coming up to breathe, and plunging again with astonishing celerity.

Except during the breeding season this grebe does not associate much with other species; it is usually seen singly, in pairs, or in very small parties Dr. Frank M. Chapman's (1912) experience shows that it is not always so solitary; he says:

On Heron Lake, Minnesota, in early October, I have seen pied-billed grebes, in close-massed flocks, containing a hundred or more birds cruising about in open water.

Prof. Lynds Jones writes me that:

On small bodies of water they mix somewhat with the other water birds, more from necessity than from choice. Threatened danger will almost always result in the separation of the grebes from the ducks with which they may be associated.

Rev. W. F. Henninger reports that he has seen them associated with blue-winged teal and black duck and playfully chasing around with them.

The vocal powers of the pied-billed grebe are limited to a few notes, heard mainly in the breeding season, for at other times it is generally a silent bird. Dr. Chapman (1908) describes its love notes as follows:

Its notes, as I have heard them in the Montezuma marshes, are very loud and sonorous with a  cuckoo-like quality, and may be written "cow-cow-cow-cow-cow-cow-cow-cow-cow-cow-uh, cow-uh, cow-uh-cow-uh.' These notes vary in number, and are sometimes followed by prolonged wailing 'cows' or 'uhs,' almost human in their expressiveness of pain and fear. This is apparently the love song of the male, in which his mate sometimes joins with a 'cuk-cuk-cuk,' followed by a slower 'ugh, ugh, ugh.'

Mr. W. L. Dawson (1909) designates the notes as "an odd bubbling giggle, keggy, keggy, keggy, keggy, keggy, keggy, keggy, etc., rendered with great rapidity"; he also refers to a single excited aow, uttered from time to time. Mr. E. E. Thompson (1890) describes a peculiar call note "pr-r-r-r- tow tow tow tow tow" which he ascribed to this species in Manitoba.

The pied-billed grebe may be distinguished in the field from other grebes by the absence of white in the wings, by the general brownish tinge, and by the short, thick, henlike bill.

Rev. C. W. G. Eifrig has sent me the following account of an incident, which well illustrates the ability of this species to conceal itself:

It had been very dry for a long time. The sloughs were dry or nearly so. While walking through one, I saw a grebe in the fringe between the plant growth of the center and the outer shore where there was hardly enough cover for a grasshopper to hide. Nor could it find cover in the center, for that is where I came from. It could not dive, because the water was only 3 or 4 inches deep. So being forced to adopt desperate means, it threw itself over a tussock in the shallow water, where at once it became invisible at a distance of 10 to 15 feet. And the tussock was only as large as 2 or 3 hands. Its neck was lying across, the body pressed against the side as closely as possible and so its colors harmonized exactly with the blackish brown of the tussock.

Two somewhat similar incidents are related by Mr. Delos E. Culver (1914) which show that these and similar hiding poses are probably frequently used by pied-billed grebes.

Fall.--On the fall migration these grebes proceed slowly through September and October, lingering on the inland ponds and small streams in family parties, in pairs or even singly, sojourning regularly in certain favorite spots, but working gradually coastwise. They show a decided preference for fresh water at all seasons, but as the ponds and streams become frozen, they are forced to resort to the open tidal creeks and estuaries. In such places they spend the winter on our southern Atlantic and Gulf coasts and as far north as Washington on the Pacific coast. They also winter to some extent in the rivers and open lakes of the interior, particularly in the southern States and Mexico.

Pied-billed Grebe* Podilymbus podiceps

*Original Source: Bent, Arthur Cleveland. 1919. Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 107: 39-47. United States Government Printing Office