Pied-billed grebes are small duck-like birds. They weigh 253 to 568 g and are 30.5 to 38.1 cm long. They have an average wingspan of 16 cm.
During the breeding season, pied-billed grebes are dark brownish on their upper parts and grayish on the sides of their neck and body. They have a black patch on their throat, and white ring around the eye. Their bill is thick and chicken-like, and is bluish-white with one thick black stripe, like a black band around it. These birds also have a puffy white undertail. In winter, pied-billed grebes look similar, but they do not have a black patch on their throat or a black stripe on the bill. Their neck and flanks also turn reddish in the winter.
Pied-billed grebes breed on the coasts of Alaska, and throughout Canada and the United States. They also breed in some areas of the Caribbean and in South America to central Chile and southern Argentina.
Pied-billed grebes migrate with other birds from the northern United States and Canada, where lakes freeze over in winter, to southern North America, South America and the Caribbean. (American Ornithologists' Union, 1998; McLaren, 1998; )
During the breeding season, pied-billed grebes live in freshwater ponds and lakes or somewhat brackish waters. They usually live in areas with aquatic plants that stick out of the water and provide good nest sites. Pied-billed grebes use the same type of habitat in the winter as long as the water does not freeze. (Muller and Storer, 1999)
Pied-billed grebes have one mate each year, and a pair of grebes may mate together for several years. Pied-billed grebes use displays of their swimming ability and other features to attract a mate. Before mating, pairs may swim together, or race and dive underwater. (Palmer, 1962)
Pied-billed grebes first breed when they are one or two years old. Grebes breeding in the north raise one brood each summer. Some pied-billed grebes breeding in the south may raise two broods in a summer. The grebes build bowl-shaped nests that float, but are anchored to aquatic plants. They are usually built in shallow water. The male and female build the nest from fresh and decomposing plants that they gather from the lake bottom.
The female lays 3 to 10 (usually 5 to 7) eggs, which are white or sometimes turquoise. Within two days of laying, the eggs become stained by the nest and turn brown. The eggs are incubated for 23 to 27 days, and hatch at different times. The chicks are able to leave the nest within an hour of hatching, usually by climbing onto a parent's back. They become independent from their parents within 25 to 62 days.
Both male and female pied-billed grebes incubate the eggs. The chicks are precocial and can swim and dive immediately after hatching. However, parents continue to protect the chicks for several weeks, and often carry them on their backs. The parents feed the chicks from the time they hatch until they become independent, up to 10 weeks after hatching. (Ehrlich, et al., 1988; MacVean, 1988; McAllister, 1963; Muller, 1995)
There is little information available on pied-billed grebes lifespans. However, grebes are thought to be long-lived birds. One wild pied-billed grebe is thought to have lived at least five years. (Storer, 1960)
Pied-billed grebes, like all grebes, are excellent swimmers and divers. Their feet are placed far back on their body, giving them greater ability to rotate the tibiotarsus. This allows them to move their feet above, below, or level with the body underwater. Because their feet are placed far back on the body, pied-billed grebes are extremely awkward on land. (Townsends, 1924; Stolpe, 1935; Storer, 1960).
Like other grebes, pied-billed grebes need a long running start on the surface of the water while flapping their wings, in order to fly. Pied-billed grebes are strong fliers, but are not very maneuverable (Bent, 1919; Miller, 1942).
Pied-billed grebes are extremely territorial during the breeding season. Single males or pairs establish territories that they defend. The territory size for a breeding pair is highly variable, with the average size of 13,000 square meters. Pied-billed grebes are more social when not in breeding season. They are often observed chasing fish, playing together and diving for objects underwater (MacVean, 1988; Muller, 1995).
Most pied-billed grebes migrate with other birds from the northern United States and Canada, where bodies of water usually freeze in the winter. They migrate to southern parts of North America and along South America and the Caribbean. Some pairs may remain on their breeding territory through the winter if the water does not freeze over (Muller and Storer, 1999). (Bent, 1919; MacVean, 1988; Miller, 1942; Muller and Storer, 1999; Muller, 1995; Stolpe, 1935; Storer, 1960; Townsend, 1924)
We do not have information on home range for this species at this time.
Pied-billed grebes use vocalizations and visual displays to communicate about courtship to defend their territory. During courtship, the male and female of a pair may call together in a duet. The songs of pied-billed grebes can vary from a series of calls that sound like "wup, whut, kuk" and then increases to a "cow" followed by a high pitched "kuk" and low pitched "kow" (Deusing, 1939; Simons, 1969; Godfrey, 1986). (Deusing, 1939; Godfrey, 1986; Muller and Storer, 1999; Simmons, 1969)
Pied-billed grebes feed on what is most readily available and is not too big for them to grip with their bill. Usually they eat small fish, crustaceans (in particular crayfish), and aquatic insects and their larvae. Some examples of potential food items include crayfish, beetles, minnows, leeches, sticklebacks, and sunfish.
Pied-billed grebes obtain water by dipping thier bill into the water, and then tipping their head back. (Ehrlich, et al., 1988)
Known predators of pied-billed grebes include glaucous-winged gulls, great horned owls, American coots, bald eagles, peregrine falcons, cottonmouths, American alligators, snapping turtles, Norway rats, raccoons and mink.
When threatened by a predator, pied-billed grebes may swim away or dive away and hide among vegetation with only their eyes and nostrils showing. Parents may also flap their wings, pretend to be injured, and call to distract predators and draw them away from their nest (Rockwell, 1910; Allen, 1914; Gabrilson, 1914; Wetmore, 1920; Miller, 1942). They may also lunge at the predator to drive it away. Adults will sometimes carry chicks on their back away from a predator. Chicks may hold onto their parent's tail with their bill and can even hold on while swimming under water for a long distance to escape predators. (Allen, 1914; Eifrig, 1915; Gabrielson, 1914; Miller, 1942; Peck, 1919; Rockwell, 1910; Wetmore, 1920)
Pied-billed grebes affect populations of their prey. They are also host to some internal and external parasites.
Pied-billed grebes eat small fish which may impact populations of economically important fish.
Pied-billed grebes are a focus of ecotourism and much research.
Degradation and destruction of their wetland habitat threaten populations of pied-billed grebes. They are also affected by poisoning from pesticides and other contaminants, such as DDE and PCB. Other sources of mortality include entanglement in fishing lines, accidental shooting when they are mistaken for ducks, and collision with man-made objects such as television towers.
Pied-billed grebes are protected by the US Migratory Bird Treaty Act, but are not listed on the US Federal List, or by CITES or the IUCN. (Muller and Storer, 1999)
Alaine Camfield (editor), Animal Diversity Web.
Kari Kirschbaum (editor), Animal Diversity Web.
Autumn Smith (author), University of Arizona, Todd McWhorter (editor), University of Arizona.
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