The Water-Witch

The Pied-Billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) is the most common Grebe found in the Eastern United States. It is also the smallest. For such a small water fowl- it has accumulated a great number of common names: Dabchick, Diedapper, Little Grebe, Helldiver, Water-Witch, Carolina Grebe, Dipper and Dipchick. "Helldiver?" It is thought that the Pied-Billed Grebe received that nickname because of its ability to simply sink quietly below the surface of the water and disappear from sight. (Grebes have the ability to squeeze the air out of their feathers. Very odd.)

Its scientific name literally means: "feet at the buttocks" (Podilymbus) and "rump headed" (podiceps). How rude! Scientists can be so cruel.

"Boring!" I can imagine you, my dear readers thinking- all 4 of you. This should wake you- consider this: it is reported that on rainy nights during migration, these birds are frequently killed by diving onto wet asphalt roads or parking lots- apparently mistaking them for ponds or lakes. (source) Just image the horror of that. And if they do land safely on the parking lot- they still aren't out of danger. Grebes need to be able to swim in order to take off and fly. Obviously they can't swim in a parking lot. They also can't walk around looking for a pond or lake. Perhaps the reason that they can be fooled into landing on wet asphalt in the first place- Grebes migrate at night. Ah, the hazards of migration. (source)

One book reported (source) that although Grebes are not gamebirds, some sportsmen relished the challenge of shooting them. (Note, the book was written in 1905- Grebes are now thankfully protected by Federal law- there is no hunting season for Grebes. Here is an article about a man in Louisiana caught with 2 dead Grebes while he was duck hunting. He faced jail time and a $5000 fine.) It was said that there was no bird in the world more difficult to shoot than a "Water-witch." The difficulty for the hunter was that the Grebe, aware of his presence, would sink deep beneath the water- where they would swim at great speed to another location far from their original spot. And even when the Grebe surfaced for air- it would just keep its nostrils above the water while the rest of its body stay submerged. (source)

You've no doubt heard the expression "Like a duck out of water." The expression should be "Like a Grebe out of water." Grebes do not like leaving the water. They are ungainly at best on dry land. As already noted, they need water to take off and fly. A Grebe rarely ventures onto dry-land: neither to sleep or nest. Not even to nest? Nope- the Grebe's nest is typically a floating mass consisting of plants retrieved from the bottom of the lake and mixed with the mud and moss found along the lakeshore. Often times they anchor the nest with a piece of Saw Grass or via some other plant. The nests are usually built near the shore- but at such a distance to help protect them from attacks by cats, dogs, skunks, etc. The Pied-Billed Grebe typically lays between 5 and 7 dull white eggs. The eggs usually hatch 23 days later.
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Michigan Bird Life... By Walter Bradford Barrows

Grebes are good parents. After the baby Grebes hatch they will have their first swimming lesson at the local YMCA (sorry, just seeing if you are still awake, dear reader); often within 1 hour of hatching. After their swimming lesson, the baby Grebes rest on their mother's back. I can hear the baby Grebe's now (if they are anything like my kids)- "What's to eat, Momma! I'm hungry!" What is a momma Grebe to do? Catch her young some fish? Or feed them a tasty bug? Nope. The momma Pied-Billed Grebe, like other Grebe species, will bite off or pull off some of her feathers and eat them. She will then feed the regurgitated feathers to her young. Yummy!

But what does an adult Grebe eat? According to, Pied-Billed Grebes eat fish, insects, and leeches. Their thick bills are also perfect for crushing crustaceans. Crawfish anyone?

Click here to here the sounds of the Pied-Billed Grebe.

I snapped the above photo of the Pied-Billed Grebe yesterday near the shore of the Tennessee River in North Alabama. I took the photo with a 400mm lens with a 2x extender. These birds are very hard to get near enough to get a good detailed photo of them. And I think that that is great! I am glad that they are still wary of humans.

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Bird-life A Guide to the Study of Our Common Birds By Frank Michler Chapman


Nature Nut /JJ Loch said...

Love the images and the write up about the Pied-Billed Grebe. I hope there aren't too many highway crashes this year. Poor things. Hells Angel Divers.

Hugs, JJ

Sandpiper said...

Interesting post! I've only seen these birds a couple of times. They are the cutest birds!!

The Giraffe Head Tree said...

Living on the river I tend to take Pie-Eyed Grebes for granted. They're small and rather common looking - not exciting at all - and shy away whenever I bring out the camera. Imagine my surprise reading about them on your blog. I now see them in a whole new light! Rejoice, The Grebe! Thanks, Daniel. said...

This is true, I am on a tidle creek,8 miles north of Sandy Hook New Jersey,looking out of my window my creek is slightly north west to East, East being the bay.( not to be a bore , it might mean a thing to 'Birders'. Well a Buffellhead Female on left a Pied- bill to my right 10 minutes later a switch,tide changed to out Greb drifted down with tide (i picture me as a young man at a dance)He then stops levell about forty feet away from the Buf/head He then edged closer then closer, 3Ft. Then 1ft.They became friends, no not that way, (and not for the whole houre i watched, 'hopeing')but the were most definitly on the verg, she more than he, they both did fluffing,and and wings, he at one time did a spin, she pecked, poked or jabed at hi tail, It seemed he new he had to do something but didn't quite know what. Bill Pamplin,