Have you noticed a solitary brown bird in a nearby pond, floating like a small duck on the surface? Suddenly it disappears, often for a minute, then pops up elsewhere. It is a Pied-billed Grebe, not a duck. No other family of birds can rotate their lobed (not duck like) feet 90° making them especially adapted for navigation, hunting and escape beneath the water. Look carefully; its beak is not like a duck’s bill, but smaller like its body and tail. It dives for its food of frogs, invertebrates, insects, and small fish. Strong jaw muscles allow it to crush and devour large crustaceans like crayfish.
Rarely do we see Pied-billed Grebes fly. They are much more comfortable diving to escape dangers or swimming to floating nests. One of the most widespread Grebes in the Americas, it ranges from northern Canada to southern South America. Floridians have year-round resident Grebes, but Grebe numbers increase September-February when Northern migrants come for Florida’s warmth and abundant food.
During breeding season, both sexes’ bills turn white with a black vertical band, giving its name “pied-billed,” meaning two colors. The fledgling’s eye-ring, beak, and lores (skin between eye and beak) turn crimson (when infused with blood) during food begging, signaling its degree of hunger. Both parents take turns feeding fledglings for at least a month after hatching until they can feed independently. Nearly half of their diet may be their own feathers, evidently to prevent fish bones and crustacean shells from entering their intestines until fully disintegrated. Feathers and indigestible matter are periodically ejected as pellets. Parents, tuck their pied-bills into their feathers when resting, removing the signal for young to beg.
Richard Baker’s artistic photo illustrates how well the patterning on the chick’s head camouflages it amongst the reeds and the water’s reflections.
Juanita Baker, Coordinator
Florida Bird Photo of the Month
Pelican Island Audubon Society