Bird of the Week

Photo courtesy Ben Bailey

This week’s Bird of the Week, compliments of the Weminuche Audubon Society and Audubon Rockies, is the pied-billed grebe.

In translation from Latin, this bird’s name describes “feet at the buttocks.” This adaptation, along with lobed toes, makes the pied-billed grebe an excellent diver but ungainly on land. Its ability to trap water in its feathers allows it to adjust buoyancy and move through the water like a submarine, floating with only the upper part of its head exposed and submerging out of sight in the face of danger.

Fairly poor fliers, pied-bills are rarely seen out of water and often seen alone. They are widespread and common waterfowl across most of the United States and southern Canada, inhabiting slow-moving rivers, marshes, lakes and ponds. During breeding season, their loud grunts, toots and barks resonate across the water.

Mainly trapping food in underwater dives, they are opportunistic feeders who prefer crustaceans and small fish that they crush with their stout bills. Grebes eat large amounts of their own feathers to form strainer-like plugs that prevent hard prey parts from entering the intestine. These plugs are later regurgitated as pellets.

Male and female pied-billed grebes are small, chunky, brownish-colored waterfowl with a blocky head, and almost no tail. The “pied” in their name refers to the black stripe on the bluish white bill of breeding birds. Juveniles have a striped face.

Pied-bills build floating platform nests amongst tall, emergent vegetation. Chicks, like the one in this photo, may leave the nest on the first day and ride on a parent’s back for the first week of life, even submerging underwater with the adult.

Pied-billed and western grebes are known to breed in our area and can be easily disturbed off the nest by kayaks, canoes and boats that venture too close.

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