Grebes, Some Of The Earliest Birds On Earth

Once upon a time the Earth was mostly covered with water. Then, loons arrived. The water loving grebes were the next birds. The star of this article is the rare sighting of the western grebe in Western New York. Lots of birders drove miles to get a look at this bird that is the biggest of all the grebes (25 inches long with a wingspan of 24).

First, let’s learn about the grebe family as a whole. The “National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds” is my favorite book for describing bird families. There are 21 species in the world and seven in the United States. Compared to loons, grebes are smaller and have lobed feet instead of webbed ones. Both loons and grebes are expert divers and disappear under the water gradually – kind of like a submarine submerging. All that is left of the grebes above the water are their bills and nostrils.

Mostly they like fish, but also crayfish and other small aquatic animals. Like some other water birds, they eat their own feathers to keep the fish bones from hurting their stomachs.

They breed on lakes, ponds and marshes. The male and female, in courtship, rush together across water with the necks extended out in front of them.

The western grebe is the biggest grebe (25 inches long with a wingspan of 24 inches). It breeds in the west and winters mostly on the Pacific Coast.

They have long curving necks and straight bills. However, the easiest way to identify them is the narrow black strip down the back of their necks. Bare skin patches on their heads, that turn dark red, are tapped when the young birds want food from their parents or when they’re in trouble.

Displays include two or more males chasing a single female. Then, there’s the “weed dance.” A male and female will both hold vegetation in their bills after being separated from each other.

Their floating nests in shallow water are composed of both fresh and decayed plants. These hidden or easily seen structures are often covered with water plants and are attached to a base or just live on top of other plants.

Usually, they live in the winter from the south to central Mexico. They were on the blue list from 1973-82. In 1986, they were listed as of special concern. They were listed as in special concern in 1986. Hunters in the early 1900s killed grebes for their feathers that were used in women’s hats. Horrible.

Also seen in our area recently are the red-necked and horned grebes. The red-necked is smaller – 18 inches long with a wingspan of 24 inches. They winter along the North American coasts. From 1974-81, they were on the Blue list which shows concern for their survival. Man has caused the thinning of their egg shells and failure of eggs to produce chicks. The problem was pesticides and PCBs and raccoons which like to eat the eggs.

Mostly, their nests are built separately from those of other birds. However, sometimes one would find the nests in colonies. At first, the adults feed the young, which are brooded on platforms. The young look awkward when they first try to fly and often have to escape trouble by swimming.

Finally, the smallest of the three grebes in discussion is the horned grebe, being 14 inches long and a wingspan of 18 inches. Of the three birds, in breeding plumage, it is the only one with a yellow patch on the head and ear tufts. In the East, it is the most common grebe to live in salt water. It usually winters in the Aleutians, on the coasts from southern California and Texas, and Eurasia.

I would love to see one of these grebes disappear slowly under the water. I’ll keep looking for that behavior at Barcelona and Dunkirk harbor.