For the Birds: Western Grebe- the “Swan Grebe”

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Western Grebe with fish
Photo by Doug Parrott
By Christine Southwick

I don’t know about you, but when the weather is bleak and drizzling, I seem to end up near the water—Lake Washington, Carkeek Park, the Locks, or one of the many other choices nearby. I usually find Western Grebes, with their long white throat and black neck, in these, their wintering waters.

Western Grebes breed inland on open lakes and marshes which have edges of emergent vegetation (rooted water plants that stick up into the air). That’s why we only see their flocks locally from September thru March or April when they migrate to saltwater and open lakes along the Pacific Coast. Western Grebes feed almost exclusively on fish, and their neck structure has evolved to enable these grebes to move their long thin yellowish-olive bills like spears, or grab fish with clamp-like strength. Another adaptation—they eat large quantities of soft body feathers, and even feed them to their newly-hatched young, to protect their digestive tracts from sharp fish bones.

Western Grebe
Photo by Doug Parrott

Sometimes nicknamed the “Swan Grebe”, Western Grebes are known for their distinctive mating dance, called rushing: they run in unison, side by side on top of the water with their long necks gracefully stretched forward.

Both male and female use plant materials from under the water to build the floating nest, and both incubate the three-to-four eggs. Upon hatching, the non-striped young immediately leave the nest, and begin riding on their parent’s back. These water birds have legs far back on their body for swimming, not walking on land, and therefore are highly affected by the health of the bodies of water in which they live and swim. Rain run-offs with garden pesticides, oil spills, fishing nets and lines are real hazards to the Western Grebes that use our local waters for about six months of the year. 

Western Grebe
Photo by Doug Parrott

Even though there are plenty of Western Grebes right now, there is concern that their population is rapidly declining near the edges of their range, especially in British Columbia (winter), Kansas, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin (some of their summer breeding grounds).

During our winter season, scan the waters for Western Grebes.  Their blacks will be grayer, but their long necks supporting their black heads with white below their eyes will still take your breath away, and make you glad you looked for these elegant grebes.


Christine Southwick is on the Board of the Puget Sound Bird Observatory and is their Winter Urban Color-banding Project Manager. She is a National Wildlife Federation Certified Wildlife Habitat Steward, having completed their forty hour class. We're happy that she is sharing her expertise with us about the birds in our backyards.

For previous For the Birds columns, click on the link under the Features section on the main webpage.


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