Podilymbus podicepspied-billed grebe

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Geographic Range

Pied-billed grebes breed on the Alaskan coasts, and throughout Canada and the United States. They also breed in some areas of the Caribbean, such as Bermuda and the West Indies and in South America to central Chile and southern Argentina (American Ornithologists' Union, 1998; McLaren, 1998).

Pied-billed grebes migrate with other birds from the northern United States and Canada where bodies of water tend to freeze to southern parts of North America and along South America and the Caribbean (Muller and Storer, 1999). (American Ornithologists' Union, 1998; McLaren, 1998; )

Habitat

During the breeding season, pied-billed grebes reside in freshwater ponds or lakes to moderately brackish waters. They usually live in areas with emergent or aquatic vegetation which provides good nest site locations. In the winter season, they use the same type of habitat as long as the water is not frozen. (Muller and Storer, 1999)

Physical Description

In breeding season, pied-billed grebes have dark brownish plumage on their upper parts and grayish plumage on the sides of their neck and flanks. They have a black patch on their throat with a whitish outline; the black extends to the malars. They have a conspicuous white ring around the eye. Their bill has a slight hook and is very distinct in breeding season when it has a bluish white color with a distinct black vertical bar. The belly and underwing are whitish as are the under tail-coverts (Godfrey, 1986).

The winter plumage tends to consist of a pale throat, and a fleshy colored bill with no black markings. Upper parts are similar to breeding plumage, however, the sides of the neck and flanks are reddish brown.

The only distinguishing characteristic of juvenile plumage is that the bill is a dull orange color and there are sometimes white markings on the side of the head. Sexes are alike (Muller and Storer, 1999).

Pied-billed grebes weigh 253 to 568 g, are 30.5 to 38.1 cm long and have a wingspan of 16 cm on average. (Godfrey, 1986; Muller and Storer, 1999)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • Range mass
    253 to 568 g
    8.92 to 20.02 oz
  • Average mass
    450 g
    15.86 oz
  • Range length
    30.5 to 38.1 cm
    12.01 to 15.00 in
  • Average length
    33.02 cm
    13.00 in
  • Average wingspan
    16 cm
    6.30 in

Reproduction

Like other grebes, P. podiceps is monogamous on a seasonal or multi-seasonal basis. However, unlike other grebes, it has no intricate courtship display. Courtship has five different stages: Advertising, the Pirouette Ceremony, Ripple Dive, Circle Display, and Triumph Ceremony.

Advertising marks the beginning of courtship, swimming around with sleek feathers and elongated neck allow the single bird to let birds of opposite sex take notice of his or her availability. In the pirouette ceremony, each bird approaches the other and then takes an upright posture and may give a greeting call followed by a series of head turning jerks. The Ripple Dance involves dives and races underwater to show the other bird his or her swimming prowess. The Circle Display is self explanatory and can be initiated by either sex; during the Circle Display the pair are several meters apart on the water surface. The Triumph Ceremony, which takes place after mates have been established, consists of each mate circling around the other in a stooped position. (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 pairs breeding in the south may raise two broods in a summer. Pied-billed grebe nests float and are anchored to marsh vegetation in shallow waters. Both sexes gather soft, flexible, decomposed or fresh plants from the lake bottom to construct the nest. The nest itself resembles a bowl (Muller and Storer, 1999).

The eggs are oval in shape and are bluish white to greenish white and occasionally turquoise. Within two days, the eggs become white and then take on the nest stains and turn brown (Muller, 1995). The typical clutch size is between two and ten (Glover, 1953) with incubation between 23 and 27 days. 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.

The breeding season for pied-billed grebes begins in approximately April or May and continues through about October. (Ackerman and Platter-Reiger, 1979; Ehrlich, et al., 1988; Glover, 1953; Muller and Storer, 1999; Muller, 1995)

  • Breeding interval
    Pied-billed grebes breed once per year. Pairs in the southern part of the range may raise two broods during a single breeding season.
  • Breeding season
    Pied-bill grebes begin breeding around April or May and continue through about October.
  • Range eggs per season
    2 to 10
  • Range time to hatching
    23 to 27 days
  • Range time to independence
    25 to 62 days
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    1 to 2 years
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    1 to 2 years

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)

  • Parental Investment
  • precocial
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female

Lifespan/Longevity

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)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: wild
    5 (high) years

Behavior

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)

  • Average territory size
    13100 m^2

Home Range

We do not have information on home range for this species at this time.

Communication and Perception

Pied-billed grebes use vocalizations and very complex and varied visual displays to communicate in courtship and in territorial matters. During courtship, the male and female of a pair may vocalize in a duet. The songs of pied-billed grebes can vary from a series of calls that sound like "wup, whut, kuk" which continually 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)

  • Other Communication Modes
  • duets

Food Habits

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)

  • Animal Foods
  • fish
  • insects
  • terrestrial non-insect arthropods
  • terrestrial worms
  • aquatic crustaceans

Predation

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 resurface hidden among vegetation with only their eyes and nostrils showing. Adult grebes may also flap their wings, fake injury, and vocalize to distract and lure predators 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 threatened 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)

Ecosystem Roles

Pied-billed grebes affect populations of their prey. They are also host to some internal and external parasites.

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Pied-billed grebes are a focus of ecotourism and much research.

  • Positive Impacts
  • ecotourism
  • research and education

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Pied-billed grebes eat small fish which may impact populations of economically important fish.

Conservation Status

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)

Contributors

Alaine Camfield (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Kari Kirschbaum (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Autumn Smith (author), University of Arizona, Todd McWhorter (editor), University of Arizona.

Glossary

Nearctic

living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map

Neotropical

living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

World Map

acoustic

uses sound to communicate

agricultural

living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

brackish water

areas with salty water, usually in coastal marshes and estuaries.

carnivore

an animal that mainly eats meat

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

diurnal
  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
duets

to jointly display, usually with sounds in a highly coordinated fashion, at the same time as one other individual of the same species, often a mate

ecotourism

humans benefit economically by promoting tourism that focuses on the appreciation of natural areas or animals. Ecotourism implies that there are existing programs that profit from the appreciation of natural areas or animals.

endothermic

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

fertilization

union of egg and spermatozoan

freshwater

mainly lives in water that is not salty.

insectivore

An animal that eats mainly insects or spiders.

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

marsh

marshes are wetland areas often dominated by grasses and reeds.

migratory

makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds

monogamous

Having one mate at a time.

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

natatorial

specialized for swimming

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

oviparous

reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.

piscivore

an animal that mainly eats fish

riparian

Referring to something living or located adjacent to a waterbody (usually, but not always, a river or stream).

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

social

associates with others of its species; forms social groups.

solitary

lives alone

tactile

uses touch to communicate

temperate

that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).

terrestrial

Living on the ground.

territorial

defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement

visual

uses sight to communicate

young precocial

young are relatively well-developed when born

References

Ackerman, R., M. Platter-Reiger. 1979. Water loss by Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) eggs. American Zoology, 19: 921.

Allen, A. 1914. At home with a Hell-Diver. Bird Lore, 16: 243-253.

American Ornithologists' Union, 1998. Check-list of North American birds. American Ornithologists' Union.

Bent, A. 1919. Life Histories of North American diving birds. U.S. National Museum Bulletin, 107: 245 pp.

Deusing, M. 1939. Nesting habits of the Pied-billed Grebe. Auk, 56(4): 367-373.

Ehrlich, P., D. Dobkin, D. Wheye. 1988. The Birder's Handbook: A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Eifrig, C. 1915. Concealing posture of Grebes. Auk, 32(1): 95.

Gabrielson, I. 1914. Pied-billed Grebe notes. Wilson Bulletin, 86: 13-15.

Glover, F. 1953. Nesting ecology of the Pied-billed Grebe in Northwestern Iowa. Wilson Bulletin, 65(1): 32-39.

Godfrey, W. 1986. The Birds of Canada. National Museum of Cananda, Ottawa.

MacVean, S. 1988. Artificial incubation, captive-rearing and maintenance of Pied-billed Grebes in Guatamala. M.S. thesis, Colorado State University, Fort Collins.

McAllister, N. 1963. Ontogeny of behavior in five species of grebes. PhD. thesis, University of Bristish Columbia, Vancouver.

McLaren, I. 1998. The winter season, December 1, 1997 to February 28, 1998, Atlantic provinces region. Field Notes, 52: 164-166.

Miller, R. 1942. The Pied-billed Grebe, a breeding bird of the Philadelphia region. Cassinia, 32: 22-34.

Muller, M., R. Storer. 1999. Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps). A Poole, F Gill, eds. The Birds of North America, Vol. 410. Philadelphia, PA: The Birds of North America, Inc..

Muller, M. 1995. Pied-billed Grebes nesting on Green Lake, Seattle Washington. Washington Birds, 4: 35-39.

Palmer, R. 1962. Handbook of North American birds. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Peck, G. 1919. Pied-billed Grebe caring for its young. Bird Lore, 21: 110.

Rockwell, R. 1910. Nesting notes on the American Eared Grebe and Pied-billed Grebe. Condor, 12: 188-193.

Simmons, K. 1969. The Pied-billed Grebe at Blagdon Lake, Somerset, in 1968. Bristol Ornithology, 2: 71-72.

Stolpe, M. 1935. Colymbus, Hesperonis, Podiceps: Ein Vergleich iher hinterer Extremitat. J. Ornithology, 83: 115-128.

Storer, R. 1960. Evolution in the diving birds. Proc. Int. Ornithol. Congr., II: 694-707.

Townsend, C. 1924. Diving of grebes and loons. Auk, 41(1): 29-41.

Wetmore, A. 1920. Observations on the habits of birds at Lake Buford, New Mexico. Auk, 37: 221-247.