Pied-billed Grebes are Full of Surprises

The Pied-Billed Grebe is an unassuming little brown bird with a surprising genetic heritage.

August and September, 2022 ~ Summer here on the upper Texas Gulf Coast was beastly hot, and so very dry. The normally lush and verdant lakes, ponds and marshes that are our usual haunts for water birds were dwindling to muddy little wallows. But in a few cases at Cullinan Park and Brazos Bend State Park, that just brought the birds closer.

Adult Pied-billed Grebe
1/3200 sec. f/6.3 ISO 1250
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
(Click on any photo once to enlarge in a new window; close that window to return here.)

This is the Pied-billed Grebe, Podilymbus podiceps. They are smallish, a little larger than a robin, or just a bit more than half the size of a mallard. They are mostly a brindled darkish brown, shading towards a lighter neck and head, and darker chin and forehead. Mature adults have a pale silvery bill banded in tidy black. Research on why sea gulls have striped or spotted bills concluded that the markings give the newly hatched babies a highly visible target for pecking to elicit feeding by the parents… perhaps the same is true of the grebes. Immature birds have a smudged white and tan bill. You can also see that his tail is hardly more than a suggestion, a few short brown feathers above his floofy white rump (the wife of one of my readers refers to the Pied-billed Grebe as “Fluffy Butt”). In the above shot, you can just see a hint of the grebe’s long toes beneath the water.

Splay-footed immature Pied-billed Grebe
1/2500 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1600
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

You’ll rarely see grebes out of the water, so you’ll have to trust me (and All About Birds) regarding their feet. They don’t have traditional webbed toes like ducks. Instead, they have lobed toes, each toe surrounded by a wide flat paddle of skin, giving them excellent control and power in the water. Those feet allow them to dive directly from a horizontal position floating on top of the water, sinking the middle of their body first, then their tail and head together, in a speedy vanishing act. They swim by spreading out their feet to their sides then drawing them together, with the webbing expanded to produce forward thrust in a powerful frog-kick.

Perpendicular feathers provide buoyancy for Pied-billed Grebe
1/2500 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1600
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

Grebes have unusual plumage. It is dense and waterproof, and on the underside the feathers are at right angles to the skin, sticking straight out to begin with and curling at the tip, as seen under the wings in the above photo. By pressing their feathers against the body, grebes can squeeze out trapped air to adjust their buoyancy. Often, they swim low in the water with just their head and neck exposed.

Pied-billed Grebe range map, courtesy of All About Birds

Pied-Billed Grebes are a short-distance migrant. The birds breeding in the far north only move south to Mexico and Northern Central America, just far enough to assure open unfrozen water. They fly at night, landing at dawn to feed and rest. They nest in floating platforms of sticks and water plants, incorporating emergent vegetation (plants anchored to the bottom, such as water lilies and lotus) to keep their nests in one place. The nest only needs to be an informal affair; several hours after hatching, the chicks climb out of the nest and up on the parent’s back where they are sheltered and brooded for their first month. The parent can actually dive to avoid danger with the chicks safely clamped under their wings. Chicks riding piggy-back is on my list of things to see!

Keen-eyed hunter
1/2500 sec. f/6.3 ISO 2000
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

The Pied-billed Grebe is a water bird, hunting large water insects, crustaceans, amphibians and small fish. So, of course they would open their eyes under the water. But when I caught this image, I was surprised by his intent gaze and focus on the below-surface world, and by his posture as he paddled around face-down for half a minute.

Guess who’s coming for dinner?
1/2500 sec. f/6.3 ISO 1250
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

A lot of critters were being crowded into the shrinking pond. This good-sized (though not gigantic) American Alligator slunk with infinite patience out from under the water lily leaves, emerging into the bright light within eight feet of the grebes.

Adult Pied-billed Grebe giving alarm call
1/2500 sec. f/6.3 ISO 1250
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

And this alert grebe let us all know about it! He yelped and barked like a ferocious little dog staring straight into the eyeball of the gator. His wing feathers were fluffed, perhaps to make himself look bigger… or maybe to prepare for a getaway dive. (And no, that isn’t a miniature beard on his bottom bill, it’s just an unfortunately-positioned bit of water-weed.)

And don’t come back!!
1/2500 sec. f/6.3 ISO 1250
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

Finally, the gator turned and slipped away, not interested in wasting energy chasing this feisty little snack.

Bathing adult American Coot on lily pad
1/3200 sec. f/6.3 ISO 1250
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

The American Coot provides a deceptively comparable bird to the Grebe. The coot also has interesting lobes on his toes (though his are smaller and are separated at the toe joints). He has a black stripe on a white bill, similar to the grebe. He has a very small tail and legs mounted near the back of his body like the grebe, and he prefers paddling to walking or flying. Here, he was just finishing his bath, leaving water sprinkled across the lily pads.

Lobed toes on the American Coot
1/3200 sec. f/6.3 ISO 1250
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

All these similarities, and yet, the coot and grebe are in two entirely different Orders (Class = Aves for birds, Order = Gruiformes for coots and Podicipediformes for grebes), each followed by their own Family, Genus, and Species. It appears that evolution resulted in the same general body plan for these two species, through two very independent family trees.

Diagram published in a 2017 article that posed a consensus view of bird phylogeny

In fact, since about 2012 it has been widely accepted that the closest living relatives to the grebes are the Flamingoes, amazingly, rather than the Loons or Coots. Their DNA is the strongest evidence for this relationship, but there is additional morphological and behavioral evidence that supports this conclusion. It includes the number of primary flight feathers (grebes, flamingos and storks have 11, while all other birds have 9 or 10), coating on their eggshells (shared only by grebes, flamingoes and the distantly related Galliformes – e.g., quail, pheasant, turkeys), muscular and skeletal similarities including the unusual structure of their fourth toe, the fact that genetically similar lice populate both grebes and flamingoes, and the discovery of fossil nests bridging the two species. Certain mating behaviors are also quite similar between grebes and flamingoes. Read about their similarities in this very approachable article: Exploring the Relationship Between Flamingos and Grebes: The Wonderful Birds. And if you really want to geek out on the science, read this. Who knew grebes could be so complicated?

Imagine that!
1/2500 sec. f/6.3 ISO 2000
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

How about that?! Once again, my journeys searching for birds bring me the joys of seeing them in the wild, and the satisfaction of learning something new about even these unassuming little brown fluff-balls.

Author: Sam.Rappen

Retired from a major US manufacturer after 36 years of exciting work. Avid amateur bird watcher and photographer, and occasional blogger.

16 thoughts on “Pied-billed Grebes are Full of Surprises”

  1. I know we have these birds here in the northeast but i’ve never seen one. After this quite informative post, which could have been named “Everything you ever wanted to know about Pied-billed Grebes”, I am sure I will recognize one should I see it. They are cute and the one “squawking” is an adorable shot.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do like to ramble on, don’t I? I can’t help it, I am really enjoying learning about birds. The variety and uniqueness of their adaptations is really incredible, and it is so varied, that learning something about one species in no way guarantees that you know anything about any other species! Thanks for reading and commenting, Stephen!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Nothing wrong with rambling on about something one is passionate about. I wish I posted more of such ramblings but most often find it difficult to put together so much thought and information. I enjoyed learning from your post.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow, thank you for the additional background about this grebe. Learned a lot, especially their swimming method and totally new to me, their relationship with flamingos -how cool. I did laugh as we BOTH have a quest to see a grebe escorting their chicks on their back – now first on the to-get list now that I FINALLY have a shot of a Wood Duck actually standing …on wood – shocking how long it took to get that. Loved the behavior tale with the gator – with their ability to move so well in the water, that might have been a difficult catch. Note, Linda and I always call Coots the “chicken of the water” due to the the way they bob their heads back an forth. Enjoyed the read about this very diminutive water creature.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Heehee – ok, you’re on, it’ll be a race to see which of us can get Grebe chicks riding on parents’ back first. Your chosen moniker of “chicken of the water” is very close to mine, “chicken of the sea”, based on the fact that their plump bodies, slow progress, and flocking behavior makes them a very tasty target for many predators. We often see the remains, and those very distinctive coot feet tell the tale.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Another wonderfully informative and entertaining post!
    Outstanding photographs.

    Pied-billed Grebes are definitely fun to observe. The young ones have fascinating face patterns. These little birds seem to always be doing something interesting.

    (Gini says thank you for the shout-out on the “fluffy-butt” nickname.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Heh – Gini’s welcome! I know Linda Leinen (shoreacres) also mentioned how cute the youngsters are… I’ve put them on my list for next spring, riding on parent’s pack and sporting those cute striped faces. Thanks for reading, Wally!

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  4. Totally fascinating info on how they create and modify buoyancy. My first grebe encounter was as a child, when a neighboring dairy farmer thought what we were seeing in his cow pond was a bird that had been almost but not completely swallowed (tail first!) by a snake … and the snake’s neck was protruding from the water with the bird’s head still hanging from its jaws. The portion beneath the water, he surmised, was a previous meal within the snake, that was too heavy for the snake to remain buoyant. Upon returning home I sketched what we had seen and asked Mom, who as usual, knew the truth. I can understand the rancher’s confusion, though, as only the snake-like head and neck were visible above the water and even that was often silhouetted by the reflected evening light.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, what a story! Isn’t it amazing how our brains can “fill in the gaps” with all kinds of fantastic imaginings. In Colorado, where you are, the species of grebes most likely observed all have much longer necks that the Pied-billed Grebe, so your farmer’s assumptions were even more understandable. Thanks for dropping by, Linda B!

      Like

  5. I really enjoyed the explanation of the Grebe’s ability to sink out of sight in an instant. They’re one of my favorite birds. I’ve been lucky enough to photograph one on its nest at Brazoria (although at the time I didn’t realize it was a nest) and I have a sequence of one actually taking flight! That’s when I realized there’s one similarity between the Coot and the Pied-Billed Grebe; they’re both equally ‘graceful’ in the air. I once was told (fancifully, of course) that both birds fly at night because they’re embarassed for anyone to see them taking off and landing.

    I came across this interesting article about the Grebe’s feather-eating. That was a surprise, for sure.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I ran across the info on feather-eating also, but didn’t include it because I was hoping to do another post where I could actually show the behavior. Blind Watchmaker, indeed! I’m tickled you got photos of one in flight, and laughed out loud at the speculation about their embarrassment.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Very cute little floaty bird, that’s not really a duck. I thought the gator added a nice tension to the story, but very glad our hero was intact at the end.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Float-y and sink-y little bird. You make an interesting observation, “not really a duck”. You are right, the ducks are all over there in the Order “Anseriformes”. Thank goodness no one is proposing that our little buddy would be part frog.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks for presenting these twoo birds. Our Coots look much the same here in Belgium but our Grebes are quite different from yours. It’s a real brave nd clever bird 🙂 Have a nice weekend Sam and many greets, Rudi

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve been intrigued by the differences between species of Grebe, and I’m looking forward to seeing some of those with more elaborate plummage in my explorations. Thanks for reading and commenting, Rudi, and happy winter!

      Liked by 1 person

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