The big bird news this month of July 2020 has been the pied-billed grebe. The word “big” here refers to the news, for the grebe is not a big bird. Neither is it uncommon. What made the bird big news is its appearance in Grand Forks, on one of the retention ponds near the south end of town – beyond South Middle School but on the city side of King’s Walk golf course.

Ordinarily the grebe is a country bird. Its haunts are not especially attractive to us humans; the grebe favors ponds and it is not fussy about water quality. Food is the thing. Grebes are divers and they are omnivores, taking small fish, frogs, insects and the like. These it dives for, sometimes with a flourish. Of course, this is what a retention pond offers, so perhaps it should not be a surprise that grebes turned up there.

The bigger surprise was that the grebes had young, which means they nested within the city limits, raising the number of recorded nesting species by one.

The pied-billed grebe is a member of a group of diving birds. It is the most widespread of the clan, occurring as far northwest as Great Slave Lake and the Hudson Bay coast and as far south as Patagonia. Six grebe species occur in North Dakota. The pied-billed is the smallest of these. Others are eared, horned, red-necked, Clark’s and western. Any one of these species might be mistaken for a duck, but a second glance will show significant differences. In the case of the pied-billed grebe, the most noticeable is size. It is smaller than the smallest duck. For other species, the relatively long neck will show that it is no duck.

The pied-billed is the plainest of the grebes in our area, but it is still an attractive bird. Young pied-billed grebes are especially appealing. They’re lighter than the adults, showing more white plumage and more prominent striping. Adults are brownish overall, tending to gray or black in breeding plumage. The clincher for identification is the heavy, dull white or ivory-colored bill crossed by a conspicuous dark, vertical band. This is the source of the species’ name, pied-billed.

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Grebes are seldom seen in flight; their usual escape strategy is to sink into the water. This has earned the species a nickname, “helldiver.” Young birds sometimes ride on the backs of adults, though they are fully capable swimmers almost as soon as they are hatched.

Pied-billed grebes are loners, for the most part, although several pairs may occupy an especially attractive wetland. Small ponds usually have only one nesting pair. These birds are strongly place bound and they defend their territories aggressively. Males sometimes attack from below.

The birds tend to bunch up after nesting, which is usually finished by early July. Southward migration begins soon after, and the chances of encountering a pied-billed grebe decrease significantly – but not entirely. Some individuals may linger well into the fall. Stragglers have been reported in Manitoba as late as Christmas Day. Some birds winter fairly far north so long as there is open water.

Pied-billed grebes are common in northeastern North Dakota, less so farther west and south. In dry summers, they sometimes occur in unusual places, and it may be that the relatively dry spring pushed these nesting grebes into Grand Forks. In wet years, pied-billed grebes are found in road ditches.

The other grebe species are more sociable than the pied-billed grebe, Western grebes sometimes occur in large numbers of open prairie lakes and sloughs. Horned and eared grebes are marsh nesters. Red-necked grebes favor wooded ponds; in North Dakota, this species is confined largely to the Turtle Mountains.

Farmland drainage has led to declines in populations of pied-billed grebes.

Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at mjacobs@polarcomm.com.

Mike Jacobs
Mike Jacobs