By Joan Collins
The pied-billed grebe is New York’s only breeding grebe species. It is a brown-colored, small, diving waterbird. Compared to a mallard, it has less than half the weight and wingspan. Most of the time you hear this bird making its loud rhythmic wailing “kaow, kaow, kaow” long before you see it.
A grebe is not a duck. Grebes have lobed toes, an adaptation they use to propel themselves underwater to get food, and a duck has webbed feet. Grebes have an ancient lineage and research has shown they are most closely related to flamingos. However, these species show no outward resemblance to each other.
The name pied-billed comes from the bird’s bicolored bill. It has a stout, light-colored bill with flattened sides and a black ring before the tip. Grebe is Latin for “feet at the buttocks.” Its feet are located at its rear end, an adaptation to help it swim underwater, but leaving it awkward and unable to walk well on land.
Their habitat includes wetlands with slow moving water, emergent vegetation close to the surface for nest construction and anchorage and near open water. They nest on floating plant material. While more abundant in the St. Lawrence Valley, they can also be found breeding in the Adirondacks in beaver-created wetlands and marshes.
Pied-billed grebes consume crayfish, small fish and aquatic insects and their larvae. They also eat large amounts of their own feathers, which often make up over half the grebe’s stomach contents. The feathers prevent hard prey parts from going into their small intestines. Feathers contribute to the formation of pellets that are ejected. One of the first foods given to their young is feathers.
Interestingly, they can change their buoyancy by expelling air from between their feathers and body, and from air sacs. This adaptation allows them to have just their eyes and nostrils above water, making them nearly undetectable to predators.
Chicks spend most of their first week of life riding on the back of an adult, like a loon chick. Their young have wild looking heads with a pattern of black and white lines like a zebra, and bright pink and black bills.
Shaw Pond is a lovely wetland in Long Lake where I view pied-billed grebes nesting every year. They have multiple broods with new nests as late as September, allowing viewing of this species well into the fall. The brood is divided between adults. On Shaw Pond, the current division is two larger chicks and four smaller chicks. They hatch over the course of a week, so some chicks are nearly a week older than their siblings. Scientists believe this brood division possibly reduces competition and sibling hierarchies in food distribution.
They’re common and widespread in southern Canada, the U.S., Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean and South America. In northeastern U.S. they face threats to wetland habitat. Between the time that settlers arrived, through the late 20th century, nearly 56% of wetlands were lost in the U.S. to draining, dredging, filling, leveling and flooding.
The pied-billed grebe is listed as threatened in New York. The state Natural Heritage Program reports they are likely to become endangered, as they are listed in Rhode Island (where they are considered extirpated), New Hampshire, Connecticut and Massachusetts. New Jersey lists them as an endangered breeding bird. Wetland habitat preservation is an urgent need for this species.
Like a children’s book that asks, “What can you find in this picture?” the more you look at Shaw Pond the more you find. Spending time at such a wetland shows how fragile and vitally important these habitats are to birds, mammals, fish, insects, amphibians and more.
Fortunately, the New York Legislature recently passed reforms to the Freshwater Wetlands Act that will allow the Department of Environmental Conservation to protect over one million acres of critically important wetlands—wonderful news for pied-billed grebes and other wildlife.