Definitely Not A Duck: 5 Fun Facts On Pied-Billed Grebes

Pied-billed grebes are part-time residents of Will County. These tiny little birds are smaller than crows. They are mostly brown and do not have tails. Their heads are rather large compared to their small bodies.

A pied-billed grebe. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Read on to learn five fun facts about pied-billed grebes.


What’s in a name?


The pied-billed grebe’s name describes features we see on the bird. “Pied” means two colors. The black stripe on the bird’s bill makes it two colors. This stripe is not always there. It is only present in male and female adults when they are looking for a mate.

Words to know

Buoyancy: The ability to float in water or air.

Pied: Two or more different colors.

Regurgitate: To bring up to the mouth again.

Stealthy: Behaving or done in a cautious or surreptitious, or sneaky, manner.

The word “grebe” is a little funny. It means “feet at the buttocks.” And that is exactly where this bird’s feet are located. They are not centered under the bird’s body but much more toward the back (and butt) of this bird. Because of this, grebes do not walk very well and are awkward on land. When they dive in the water, however, the placement of their legs and feet is perfect. Their feet act like paddles, helping them expertly swim under water and hunt. Their favorite foods are crustaceans and insects.


Not a duck

Pied-billed grebes have lobed toes. (Illustration by Angela Rafac)

Although this little bird may look like a duck, grebes are in their own group of water birds. If you are not convinced, just look at a grebe’s feet. They are not the webbed feet you find on ducks. Instead, each toe has lobes that stick out on both sides. These lobed feet act like three-pronged paddles that help grebes swim both underwater and while floating along the surface.


Stealthy submerging

A partially submerged pied-billed grebe. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Stealthy means sneaky, and grebes are masters of sneakiness. They can control their buoyancy by trapping and releasing water from within their feathers. If they trap water in their feathers, they can slowly sink without a trace, leaving not even the tiniest ripple of water on the surface as evidence of where they were. They may also choose to swim with just their little heads above the surface. By releasing the trapped water, they can rise above the surface, again without a ripple.


Proud parents

A pied-billed grebe with a young grebe. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Pied-billed grebes may have one or two broods of babies a year. They build little floating nests within the vegetation that stick out of the water. When the babies hatch, they are ready to leave the nest on day one. They climb onto their parents’ backs and will spend up to three weeks riding around with them. Young grebes can swim and find food on their own almost right away. But their parents will still feed them from time to time until they head out on their own 10 weeks after hatching.


Feather eaters


Pied-billed grebes will eat their own feathers! Half of their stomach can be full of feathers at one time. The feathers act like a strainer, preventing hard and sharp exoskeleton parts from entering and damaging their intestines. Then they form a pellet with these hard parts and regurgitate them.


Most of the year, these birds can be found in ponds and marshes. They like small, quiet areas with plant life growing up past the surface. But in the winter, they often travel to larger bodies of water and sometimes hang out in large groups. Come to Four Rivers Environmental Education Center in Channahon during the winter and you might just see these cute little birds swimming in the river!

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