Photo Credit: 
Randy Mitchell | For The Chronicle

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They don't have anything to do with pie

The pied-billed grebe is a small waterbird and a permanent resident in Southwestern Oklahoma.

Although common, I always enjoy watching and photographing these birds. And their song — cow-cow-cow-cow, cow, cow, cowp, cowp, cowp, that slows down at the end — sounds like something you'd hear in the jungles of South America. Very unusual.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes pied-billed grebes as expert divers which are “part bird, part submarine.”

That is a true description. Nearly every time I get close to a pied-billed grebe, it will dive under water only to surface 30 to 50 feet away. And if it feels that isn’t far enough away, it will do it again.

Description

The pied-billed grebe looks like a chunky little duck, only it has a pointed bill.

They are so called because their bills have more than one color — pied. However, that is not always the case. During the breeding season, adult birds have silvery bills with a black stripe on them (photo). But in the non-breeding season, the stripe goes away, and their bills are more brownish.

Pied-billed grebes are about 12 to 15 inches in length and are various shades of brown (photo).

Young birds have whitish heads with black stripes and orange bills.

Range

Pied-billed grebes breed over much of the continent. However, they are partially migratory, so many of the birds that nest in Canada and much of the northern half of the United States fly south for the winter. Pied-billed grebes have a permanent range that covers all of Oklahoma and much of the southern and western United States and down into Mexico.

Habitat

Lakes, large ponds, wetlands, sloughs, marshes, etc. During the breeding season, they tend to inhabit bodies of water that have a lot of aquatic vegetation and/or dense stands of emergent vegetation.

Food

Pied-billed grebes dive for prey. And what they eat depends greatly on where they are, and what food is available. But when available, their diet consists mostly of crustaceans and fish. They love crayfish (crawdads), but they also eat snails, small frogs, tadpoles, mussels, dragonfly nymphs and other aquatic insects. Fish include carp, minnows, shad and sunfish.

Nesting

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, pied-billed grebes build nests among tall emergent vegetation. The nests are constructed atop floating vegetation, such as water lilies.

A female will lay anywhere from two to 10 eggs, which will hatch about three weeks to a month later. Chicks will typically leave the nest the first day after hatching and climb onto a parent’s back, where they will live for about a week. They are ready to leave the nest area after about three weeks.

Odd and ends

• The Cornell Lab of Ornithology reports that pied-billed grebes greatly control their buoyancy by trapping water in their feathers. This allows them sink deeply or stay just at or below the surface, exposing as much or as little of the body as they wish. The ability to trap water may also aid in the pursuit of prey by reducing drag in turbulent water.

• The Lab also reports that, like other grebes, the pied-billed grebe eats large quantities of its own feathers. And feathers are also sometimes fed to chicks. According to ornithologists, it appears the ingested feathers form a sieve of sorts that prevents hard, potentially harmful prey parts from passing into the intestine. It also helps form indigestible items into pellets which they can regurgitate.

• Sadly, it seems pied-billed grebes don’t have long lifespans. The Lab reports that the longest-lived pied-billed grebe on record was at least 4 years, 7 months old. They are preyed upon by large gulls, falcons, great-horned owls, alligators and bald eagles.

Randy Mitchell is a freelance writer and photographer. He has been an avid birdwatcher, nature enthusiast and photographer for more than 40 years. Reach him at rnw@usa.com.

RANDY’S NATURAL WORLD