Jeff Green | May 04, 2006
Back toHomeNature Reflections - May 4, 2006
by Jean Griffin
Like all other living things, birds are classified by scientists and naturalists. A family of birds is a number of different species that have characteristics in common, and one family of birds is the Grebes. In Eastern Ontario our summer resident is the Pied-billed Grebe. This shy marsh bird is usually found in sheltered ponds with reeds and cattails in which it can hide and nest. There perhaps you may hear its far-carrying, throaty barks, or occasional grunting notes, and perhaps see it as it skulks among the vegetation.
These Grebes are early migrants, arriving soon after the ice has disappeared. The courtship of a pair is a lively event; the male rushes about, splashing along over the surface of the water, or repeatedly diving below and coming up near his intended mate, and voicing his admiration in a variety of soft, cooing notes. Once paired a nest site will be sought, and the nest will be built around or among dead or growing reeds and usually anchored to them. Built of any available vegetable matter with the whole often plastered together with the soft, green scum found on stagnant water, it is usually two to four inches above the water and up to a foot in diameter.
Mama grebe will lay from five to seven eggs and both birds will incubate. Eggs are laid one a day, and hatching occurs over a similar number of days until the family is complete. The tiny young are very precocious and leave the nest soon after hatching, which means some are out and swimming while there are still eggs to be hatched. Instinctively they are expert swimmers and divers, though they cannot remain under water more than a few seconds. Sometimes the parents will carry them on their backs.
The downy young are pretty little balls of fluff, mainly glossy black above but strikingly marked with stripes, and will be half-grown before the adult plumage appears, first on the breast, then in the wings, and will be fully grown before the down entirely disappears. The black throat of the adult and characteristic black band on the bill are acquired just before breeding season.
Pied-billed Grebes seem reluctant to migrate, and in September and October may be seen lingering in family groups, or pairs, or even singly, until forced to seek their fresh water habitat for the winter further south.
There are other grebes that visit Eastern Ontario . The Horned Grebe may be seen either in spring or fall migration, sometimes alone, or in family groups, but it likes to breed more in the northwest of the continent. The other uncommon visitors in migration are the Red-necked Grebe, also a breeder in the northwest, the Eared Grebe which breeds in the midwest (but not north), and the Western and Clark ’s Grebes of the prairies which only very rarely wander to the east.