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Birds Guide


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Western Grebe
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Podicipediformes
Fürbringer, 1888
Family: Podicipedidae
Bonaparte, 1831

Grebes are members of the Podicipediformes order, a widely distributed order of freshwater diving birds, some of which visit the sea when migrating and in winter. This order contains only a single family, the Podicipedidae, containing 20 species in 6 genera.

Grebes are small to medium-large in size, have lobed toes, and are excellent swimmers and divers. However, they have their feet placed far back on the body, making them quite ungainly on land. They leave the water only to nest, walking very short distances upright like penguins. They can run for a short distance, but often fall over.

Grebes have narrow wings, and some species are reluctant to fly; indeed, two South American species are completely flightless. They respond to danger by diving rather than flying, and are in any case much less wary than ducks.

However, the North American and Eurasian species are all, of necessity, migratory over much or all of their ranges, and those species that winter at sea are also seen regularly in flight. Even the small freshwater Pied-billed Grebe of North America has occurred as a transatlantic vagrant to Europe on more than 30 occasions.

Bills vary from short and thick to long and pointed; the feet are always large, with broad lobes on the toes and small webs connecting the front three toes. The hind toe also has a small lobe. Recent experimental work has shown that these lobes work like the hydrofoil blades of a propeller. Curiously, the same mechanism seems to have evolved independently in the extinct Cretaceous-age Hesperornithiformes.

Grebes have unusual plumage. It is dense and waterproof, and on the underside the feathers are at right-angles to the skin, sticking straight out to begin with and curling at the tip. By pressing their feathers against the body, grebes can adjust their buoyancy. Often, they swim low in the water with just the head and neck exposed.

In the non-breeding season, grebes are plain-coloured in dark browns and whites. However, most have ornate and distinctive breeding plumages, often developing chestnut markings on the head area, and perform elaborate display rituals. The young, particularly those of the Podiceps genus, are often striped and retain some of their juvenile plumage even after reaching full size.

When preening, grebes eat their own feathers, and feed them to their young. The function of this behaviour is uncertain but it is believed to assist with pellet formation and to reduce their vulnerability to gastric parasites.

The grebes share anatomical characters with and are genetically most closely related to flamingos Phoenicopteridae, in spite of their superficial differences.

Species in taxonomic order

  • Genus Tachybaptus
    • Little Grebe, Tachybaptus ruficollis
      Australasian Grebe Tachybaptus novaehollandiae
      Madagascar Grebe, Tachybaptus pelzelnii
      Alaotra Grebe (Rusty Grebe), Tachybaptus rufolavatus - probably extinct (late 1980s)
      Least Grebe, Tachybaptus dominicus
  • Genus Podilymbus
    • Pied-billed Grebe, Podilymbus podiceps
      †Atitlán Grebe, Podilymbus gigas Conservation status: Extinct (1989)
  • Genus Rollandia
    • White-tufted Grebe, Rollandia rolland
      Titicaca Flightless Grebe, Rollandia microptera
  • Genus Poliocephalus
    • Hoary-headed Grebe, Poliocephalus poliocephalus
      New Zealand Dabchick, Poliocephalus rufopectus
  • Genus Podiceps
    • Red-necked Grebe, Podiceps grisegena
      Great Crested Grebe, Podiceps cristatus
      Slavonian Grebe or Horned Grebe, Podiceps auritus
      Black-necked Grebe or Eared Grebe, Podiceps nigricollis
      †Colombian Grebe, Podiceps andinus Conservation status: Extinct (1977)
      Great Grebe, Podiceps major
      Silvery Grebe, Podiceps occipitalis
      Junin Flightless Grebe, Podiceps taczanowskii
      Hooded Grebe, Podiceps gallardoi
  • Genus Aechmophorus
    • Western Grebe, Aechmophorus occidentalis
      Clark's Grebe, Aechmophorus clarkii

External links


  • Grebes of our world by André Konter. Lynx Edicions. 187 pages. ISBN 84-87334-33-4

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| Pitta
| Plotopteridae
| Pluvianellidae
| Podicipedidae
| Polioptilidae
| Presbyornithidae
| Psittacidae
| Pteroclididae
| Ptilogonatidae

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