There is something very pleasant about spotting a Pied-billed Grebe on a lake or a pond. For one thing, these usually solitary birds are easy to identify. It is difficult to confuse them with any other waterfowl, or any other grebes for that matter. That’s always a good thing
The name grebe is French and thought by some to have come from the Breton word krib, meaning crest. The Pied-billed Grebe doesn’t have any sort of crest or tuft, however. The description “pied-billed” isn’t much help either. This refers to the fact that in breeding plumage, the bird’s whitish bill has a black vertical bar across the center of it. When they visit Carroll County, this feature is usually not so obvious.
So, how does one identify this bird? The bird measures around 13 inches from bill to tail. In Birds of Lake, Pond, and Marsh, John Eastman describes the pied-billed grebe as a “brown, chunky, duck-like diver.” Walter Ellison, in the Second Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Maryland and the District of Columbia, says that it looks like “a drab gray ball with a slender neck and round head.” Not very flattering.
Whenever I spot this species, Roger Tory Peterson immediately comes to mind. In one of my old field guides by this author it is described as “A chicken-billed diver.” Succinct and to the point. The bird looks a little like a chicken. For some reason, the authors of other modern bird guides fail to mention this. (No doubt the threat of lawsuit from GADS, the Grebe Anti-Defamation Society, has something to do with this.)
If the Pied-billed Grebe looks like a chicken in some ways, it can also be said to resemble a submarine. This is a strange combination for sure. However, it works. The bird has the ability to sink in place, just like Captain Nemo. It does this by forcing air from its feathers and body to reduce buoyancy. This makes it possible to swim with only its head protruding above the surface, like a periscope. This strange ability may have had something to do with some of the pied-billed grebe’s other common names. It has been called hell diver and water witch in some locales.
Also like a submarine, the Pied-billed Grebe can dive when necessary. This would be its preferred way to avoid potential predators. To assist in this process, it has large feet, with partially webbed toes. Unfortunately, these are of no help whatsoever on land. Add to this the rearward placement of the legs, and you have a bird that couldn’t take off from land even if it wanted to. Not that you are likely to see one in flight anyway. Such acrobatics are usually reserved for migration.
Pied-billed Grebes may dive as deep as 20 feet. They also do this to capture the food they eat. This is made up mostly of aquatic insects, although the grebes also eat crayfish, minnows, small carp and catfish, snails, tadpoles, frogs, and an occasional spider for variety. Sad to say, some Pied-billed Grebes have also been known to prey on swimming ducklings. There may also be small amount of vegetable matter and seeds on the menu.
Strangest of all, however, when it comes to this specie’s eating habits, is the fact that it eats its own feathers. We’re not talking about an occasional nibble while preening either. The contents of some bird’s stomachs have been shown to have feather content as high as 50%. That’s a lot of feathers! The jury is still out as to why Pied-billed Grebes do this. Having all those feathers in there may cushion the walls of the stomach and protect them from sharp bones and the like. The feathers may also slow the passage of such materials giving the stomach longer to digest them.
Some Pied-billed Grebes have been recorded to breed in Maryland, but none in Carroll County. The problem is that we do not have enough suitable habitat. Pied-billed Grebes prefer wetlands with lots of floating plants and adjacent open water. There isn’t all that much of this in Maryland, much less Carroll County. Pied-Billed Grebes breed from Southern Canada to South America.
Pairs return to previous nesting sites in the Spring. They are probably monogamous.
Displays used in courtship and territory defense tend to be more vocal than visual. The call of the Pied-Billed Grebe has been referred to as “distinctive” and “throaty”. Eastman compares it to that of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo. Both parents build the nest. It is more or less a platform of rotted aquatic vegetation, floating on the water’s surface, but partially anchored to a plant with roots to hold it in place. Five to seven bluish-white eggs are laid. Incubation takes around 23 days. The female is mainly responsible for this, however, the male may pitch in from time to time.
The chicks are striped down the back with a red spot near the eye. Parents will frequently carry one or two of them around on their backs, even when diving. This prompts many birders to comment “Aren’t they cute!”
Migration, if you can call it that, isn’t such a big deal for Pied-billed Grebes. In the fall, they become less solitary and join together in groups of as many as fifty individuals. Then, they disperse to areas where they can survive the winter. Often, they will only travel as far south as it takes to find water that hasn’t frozen over.
This species is the most abundant of the six grebes here in North America. Raccoons may destroy nests, however, the biggest dangers to the Pied-billed Grebe are flooding and habitat loss. The Pied-billed Grebes we see here in Carroll County are usually either winter residents or just passing through.