What bird is part submarine?
This bird swims like a duck on water, but also can control its buoyancy so that only the upper half of the head appears above water while swimming. This is a pied-billed grebe.
Pied-billed means having two or more different colors. During breeding season, its bill is silver/white with a black vertical band. Grebes are in the genus Podiceps which means “feet at the buttocks” and indeed, the feet on these birds are located near their rear end and help propel them through the water.
They are a chunky waterbird with a blocky head on a thin neck. They have a short, thick bill good for crunching on crustaceans, and a very short tail. Mostly brown, they are a bit darker above and tawny underneath. Spring and summer, the crown and neck turn black and the bill, as mentioned above, changes to silver/white with a black stripe.
We can find these grebes all over North America and most of South America. In our area, they are found around Lake Camanche and New Hogan Lake plus anywhere you will find flat, sluggish water that is either fresh or brackish. They like freshwater wetlands, bays, sloughs, slow-moving rivers, and even sewage ponds.
They forage by diving for their food which consists of crustaceans, crabs, shrimps, snails, mussels, dragonfly nymphs, minnows and more. Grebes also consume lots of their own feathers. As much as half of the stomach’s contents can be feathers. These feather bits form a sieve that keeps indigestible prey parts from moving into the intestines. The bits are formed into a pellet that is regurgitated.
Grebes nest amongst tall emergent vegetation and lower-growing plants in water deeper than 9 inches to allow for escape, plentiful feeding and good nest location. Their nest is an open bowl on a floating platform. The platform may be a lily leaf or stems of bullrushes. Both male and female may take as little as a day to build the nest that will support one egg. They continue to add to the nest to support more eggs. Two to ten eggs will make up the clutch which take 23-27 days to hatch. The young are precocial – they are able to leave the nest a day after hatching. Young will soon climb on the back of the adults and stay there for the first week. Parents even dive under water with the young clamped on their back.
They are not good fliers and are clumsy on land. By trapping water in their feathers, they control their buoyancy to sink deeply, or stay just below the surface of the water.
California was home to the longest lived pied-billed grebe at 4 years, 7 months.
Tri County Wildlife Care, a local nonprofit started in 1994, is dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of our native wildlife and helping our community live in balance with wildlife. They envision a world where wildlife and people thrive together. For more information call (209) 283-3245, or visit pawspartners.org.