Not often do the volunteers and staff at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport get their hands on a Pied-Billed Grebe, but it happened just a few weeks ago. You see, Grebes are extremely elusive and won’t be found on land unless something has gone wrong. When someone with a compassionate heart found the petite Grebe scooting along the ground, it was thought at the time that the water bird must have a broken leg or two. So, the rescuer scooped him up and transported the short-billed, wide-eyed critter to the shelter. Our examination revealed no injuries to wings or legs and no presence of toxins or illness. Although Grebes rarely fly, when they do, it’s usually at night. So, because the small Grebe is not talking, our educated theory is during flight on a rainy night, an attempted landing on a shiny spot he misidentified as a body of water caused him to belly flop onto wet pavement. Fortunately for him, it was a landing instead of a dive, so although jarring, he survived the mistake but found himself displaced. We decided the best treatment plan would be observation, plenty of good food, water play and Rest & Recuperation so he could recover from the shock and trauma of the predicament he found himself in before we return him to his happy place in the wild. The Pied-Billed Grebe, also known as American dabchick, Devil-diver, Dive-dapper and Water Witch, as well as a few other names, are excellent freshwater swimmers and divers, but they don’t walk very well on land because their feet are far back on their body, similar to the Loon. They can run for a short distance on water, but on land they are not stable and will fall over. PB Grebes are small and stocky with a short neck, compared to other water or marsh birds. They measure between 12 – 15 inches in length and weigh only 9 to 20 ounces. Their wingspan extends from 18 – 24 inches. Their chicken-like bill is short, blunt and light gray. The PB Grebe is mainly brown with a darker brown head and back, which serves as excellent camouflage in the marshes where they live. In the summer the bill sports a black band and their throat area looks much darker, almost black. Grebe feathers are dense, soft and waterproof. They have the ability to pull their feathers tight against their body to manage buoyancy as necessary. If danger lurks, they will dive, subtly – no big splash, basically just sink like a gator, up to 20 feet rather than fly to avoid predators. PB Grebes will stay under water for about 30 seconds while moving to a safer location. They often swim low in the water anyway, exposing only their head and neck watching for potential threats. During breeding season, the Pied-Billed Grebe couple, who have courted by singing to each other or together, will use a variety of plant material and twigs to build floating nests on the surface of the water. The nests are built close to shore but far enough away to protect them from a predator attack, which might show up in the form of a dog, cat, raccoon or human. They lay up to two sets of bluish-white eggs each year, numbering 3 to 10 per clutch. Incubation takes about 23 days and both parents oblige, although the female will take over the responsibility toward the end of the incubation period. If the parents have to leave the nest unattended, they will cover all the eggs with nesting material to protect them from predators while they are away. As soon as the youngsters hatch, they are able to swim, although not well and will climb onto a parent’s back for much of their travels until they are skillful enough to dive, hunt and swim like Mom and Pop. Both parents raise the young and will even dive for food with young ones clinging to them. Pied-Billed Grebes prefer to dine on aquatic invertebrates, such as crayfish, snails, leeches and insects but will also feed on small fish, frogs and tadpoles. Their stout, thick bill enables them to crush crustaceans like mussels. They sometimes add plants to their diet, too. An interesting and not well known fact about the “Water Witch” is they have a tendency to eat their own feathers and also feed them to their hatchlings. It’s believed that this odd diet choice assists in the formation of pellets containing indigestible material that can be expelled and to reduce vulnerability to gastric parasites. The greatest threat to the Pied-Billed Grebe is habitat loss. They need wetlands, and wetlands are being lost to draining and filling for residential use. Grebes are shy and very sensitive to disturbances. Even the waves from boats can destroy nests and cause frightened PB Grebes to abandon their nests. Grebes have been declared endangered or threatened in many states, although they haven’t made the list in North Carolina yet. Our Pied-Billed Grebe is a cooperative cutie and doing very well. He will be swimming and diving waters near you soon, and he may even be on the periphery of where you are by the time you are reading this article.
Dive on little Water Witch!! Dive on!
Author of “Save Them All”