By Lewis Young
The Western Grebe is a striking black and white bird with a long slim neck and a long bill. The largest of our grebes with a length of 25 inches, a wingspan of 24 inches, and weighing just over 3 pounds, they have a long greenish-yellow sharp-pointed bill, and black (or dark gray) and white plumage. The dark plumage is found on the top of the head, back of the neck, and the upper body. The white is found on the chin, front of the neck and the underside of the body. At close range, the red eye may be seen. Their tail feathers are very small and hidden among other body feathers. A gregarious, colonial nesting species, they are infrequently seen on land or in flight. Males and females are generally indistinguishable.
The Western Grebe is one of seven species of grebes in North America and easily separated from other grebes, except the Clark’s Grebe, which is also occasionally found in our area. Differences in bill color and the pattern of white on the face allow the two species to be differentiated. The Clark’s has a bright yellow or orange bill and white surrounding the eye, while the Western has a yellowish green bill and dark surrounding the eye.
Grebes are famous for their elaborate courtship displays with different phases at different stages of breeding. Perhaps most recognized is the ballet-like rushing display in which 2 birds in unison rear to an upright posture with necks kinked and wings swept back, race across the lake surface with a great pattering of feet, then dive underwater. Their nest is a floating heap of plant material anchored to standing vegetation in a shallow water marsh. Their 2-4 bluish-white eggs become brown-stained over time and both sexes incubate the eggs for about 24 days. Hatching is not synchronized, so the last egg may be abandoned in the nest. Chicks can swim and dive from birth and often ride upon parents’ backs for shelter, protection, and brooding. Adults may even dive with chicks on their backs. Chicks have bare yellow spots on their heads that become vivid red when begging for food or alarmed. They take their first flight in about 10 weeks.
The diet of the Western Grebe is mostly fish, although they are also known to eat crustaceans, insects, worms, and salamanders. Most foraging occurs at or near the water’s surface, but they can dive to 90 feet. They also eat large numbers of their own feathers, primarily from their flanks and belly. This may protect their stomachs from puncture by indigestible parts of the prey they eat and the feathers also provide the base material for regurgitated pellets of undigested items such as fish bones.
Grebes summer mainly on freshwater lakes with large areas of open water and marsh vegetation throughout much of the western US and southern Canada. They winter on sheltered bays or estuaries along the Pacific coast, and inland on large freshwater lakes (rarely rivers) primarily in the southwestern US and parts of Mexico. Western Grebes may be found in the Flathead Valley and surrounding area both summer and winter. Western Montana hosts overwintering birds on large lakes like Flathead Lake and Koocanusa Reservoir when they are ice free. Flocks of over 50 birds have been observed on Koocanusa Reservoir on the Eureka Christmas Bird Count and flocks of over 200 birds during fall migration. Migration between summer and winter ranges is believed to occur at night in flocks.
In the early 1900’s, tens of thousands of Western Grebes were killed for their “fur,” which was used to make hats and coats. Natural predators include large fishes such as bass and pike, turtles, herons, gulls, raccoons, and mink. Western Grebes are susceptible to a variety of toxins and human related influences. PCB’s and organoclorine pesticides cause eggshell breakage and nesting failure. Ingestion of lead fishing weights and lures cause lead poisoning. Nesting and feeding habitat is often altered by human activities such as development on lakes, vegetation clearing, boating, and alteration of water levels.
Western Grebes contribute to the wonderful bird life diversity on our lakes, and should you ever be fortunate enough to observe their mating “dance,” you will be enthralled and have a great memory to associate with sightings at other times of the year.