Fish are the primary source of nutrition for the Horned Grebe. And yet, 50 % of their stomach content consists of their own feathers!
Scientists are not quite sure why these birds ingest their feathers but think it is because of their fish intake. They surmise that the feathers form a pad in the grebe’s stomach, either filtering the food or retaining fish bones prior to digestion, thereby protecting the stomach from the small splintery bones until they are digested. The grebes even feed their own feathers to their newly hatched chicks!
In the winter, horned grebes are gray and white. In breeding season, some of their feathers are a distinctive rusty color. There are tufts of yellow feathers behind their eyes; the grebes can raise these up, like horns, hence their name.
Courting grebes have a complex mating ritual, almost a dance. They “stand” on the water together, dive together, pluck weeds together and then carry those weeds simultaneously while speeding through the water.
They communicate by physical displays and vocalizations especially during their breeding season. At other times, grebes are not vocal. Their call is a trill and can sound like chuckling or giggling.
As parents, both grebes take care of the young, incubating the eggs which are laid in a clutch of three to eight. The chicks often ride on their parents’ backs for the first 10 days after hatching. Grebes breed inland on ponds and marshes and migrate to the coast in winter.
Grebes are fine swimmers and divers and can stay under water up to three minutes. They propel themselves with their feet. However, because of the rear placement of their legs, they are clumsy on land and must take flight from the water.
Grebes look like small ducks, about 9 ½ inches long. They have thin bills with a small whitish tip.