Pied-billed Grebe

Podilymbus podiceps

  • Version: 2.0 — Published January 1, 1999
  • Martin J. Muller and Robert W. Storer

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Figure 1. Distribution of the Pied-billed Grebe.

Distribution of the Pied-billed Grebe in North and Central America and the western Caribbean. This species also breeds in South America and the Hawaiian Islands, and winters in the eastern Caribbean.

Adult Pied-billed Grebe, breeding plumage; NY State, May

Montezuma NWR, NY; May 1997; photographer Marie Read

The Pied-billed Grebe has the widest distribution in the Americas of any grebe, breeding from northern Canada through the West Indies and Central America to southern South America. It is a common denizen of freshwater marshes, lakes, and sluggish rivers, and, in winter, brackish estuaries. Its brown plumage and short, high, arched bill distinguish it from other common North American grebes, especially in the breeding season, when the bill is bluish white with a vertical black bar. Usually nesting in emergent vegetation, this secretive grebe has a far-reaching caow caow caow call that can often be heard before the caller is seen.

The Pied-billed Grebe is opportunistic, feeding on whatever prey is most readily available. Although its bill is well adapted for taking and killing large crustaceans, the species also takes frogs and a large variety of fishes, insects, and other invertebrates. It takes most food by diving either in open water or among aquatic vegetation, but it picks some food off vegetation or the surface of the water, or even catches it in midair.

This grebe is seldom seen in flight, in part because it migrates by night, landing on the nearest body of water before or at dawn, and in part because it usually prefers to escape danger either by crash-diving, when it may kick water several feet into the air, or by stealthily sinking out of view. When hiding, it may remain underwater with eyes and nostrils just above the surface. Although its wing-loading is high, it is capable of long overwater flights; it has reached the Hawaiian Islands, Europe, the Azores, and the Canary Islands.

The Pied-billed Grebe is an aggressive bird, threatening, chasing, and attacking both members of its own species and other birds. Males, which are larger than females, do most of the territorial defense; attacks are often made from under water, and many birds, especially grebes, react by fleeing when a Pied-billed Grebe dives toward them.

As with other grebes, the nest of this species is a floating platform, and the parents share the duties of nest-building, incubation, and care of the young.

It appears from the literature that many variations on events observed in one locality can exist elsewhere. This is to be expected in a species as widespread as the Pied-billed Grebe.

Most papers on the Pied-billed Grebe are from temperate North America and are either anecdotal or deal with a single aspect of its life history. Information on breeding biology is available from Chabreck 1963, Davis et al. 1984b, Faaborg 1976, Glover 1953b, Krapu et al. 1970, Otto 1983b, Mcallister and Storer 1963, and Muller 1995b. Eggs, incubation, and food allocation to chicks in the wild have been discussed by Forbes and Ankney 1987, Forbes and Ankney 1988a, Forbes and Ankney 1988b. Incubation and chick development in captivity were described by McAllister (Mcallister 1963) and MacVean (Macvean 1988). Grebe parasites are discussed by Storer (Storer 2000). Many details about molt, behavior, and development of the young remain to be discovered. Population biology over the species' entire range is in dire need of study.

Recommended Citation

Muller, M. J. and R. W. Storer (1999). Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.