Commonly found in shallow wetlands across western North America, the Eared Grebe is a small waterbird. They are the most abundant grebes in the world and gather in colonies of hundreds and thousands before beginning their winter migrations southwards. These birds have evolved to be versatile in adapting to new environments and can be seen taking advantage of temporary or man-made bodies of water as and when required.
About Eared Grebes
Eared Grebes are extremely interesting for a multitude of reasons. Some of these reasons lie in their ability to double their body weight and the size of their muscles and organs during the breeding seasons. Their chest muscles also shrink to the point of rendering them flightless, while their digestive organs grow and allow them to intake large quantities of food. Before they depart for their wintering grounds, they reverse the process. Digestive organs shrink back to their smaller sizes while their heart and chest muscles grow in order to allow for flight. This process occurs a couple of times every year, making them birds with the longest flightless period among all bird species that are capable of flight.
The fascinating points about these wisped birds do not end there, with many more curious traits fascinating scientists to the point of terming them as the “whales of the bird world”. They are distinctly unique during their breeding and non-breeding seasons, and today we will learn how to identify them accurately in order to fully appreciate the surprises they offer.
● Eared Grebe Photos, Color Pattern, Song
● Eared Grebe Size, Eating Behavior, Habitat
● Eared Grebe Range and Migration, Nesting
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Eared Grebe Color Pattern
Like many other waterbirds, Eared Grebes do not exhibit any sexual dimorphism in their appearances. The plumages of both sexes are similar, but all adults have differently colored plumes depending on the season. Breeding adults have blackheads, necks, breasts, and upper parts that contrast with their cinnamon-brown sides and flanks, and white
bellies. They have a black crest on top of their head. While their cheeks have bright golden ear tufts, feathers that extend from around the back of their eyes. The crown feathers are erectile and stand upright, giving them the appearance of a crest. The top of their neck is sometimes tinged with brown. Their wings are dark and you can sometimes see a white patch on their secondary feathers when in flight. They have mostly pale gray-brown outer feathers. The irises are a distinct bright red throughout the year.
During the non-breeding seasons, they return to their basic plumages. The top of their head, back of the neck, and mantle are blackish while their rump is white. The sides, flanks, and the front of the neck are greyish with white predominating on the breast. This blends in with their white chin, throat, and belly. Their chin and throat are not separate from the blackish crown. The dark color extends below the eye to their ear coverts. The shape of their head appears to be round due to the absence of the prominent crest that appears during the breeding seasons. Juveniles look similar to non-breeding adults but have a brownish tinge on their back and neck, along with some buffy tinges on the sides of their head and upper neck.
Description and Identification
Eared Grebes are relatively easy to identify during the breeding seasons. Their golden wisps stand out from their black bodies and contrast with their red eyes. The challenge might come in distinguishing them from Horned Grebes, a similar-looking related species. In order to avoid confusion, keep an eye out for the smudgy golden patch on the cheeks of Eared Grebes that Horned Grebe lack. Likewise, Eared Grebes do not have the characteristic clean line between the cap and the cheek that is present on Horned Grebes. During spring, these birds gather massive numbers at various inland salty waters before beginning their migrations. They are unmistakable in these events and can be spotted from a significant distance away. Their calls will be audible from a distance and might sound like a cross between tweets and chatters echoing through their large groups.
Eared Grebe Song
Adults of both sexes have the same vocal ranges and give similar calls throughout the year. The first is the advertising call, a “poo-ee-chk” that they repeat. They make this call spontaneously or in response to the advertising by potential mates. Although both sexes give out this call. However, when females make it, it is typically a higher pitch and has a short duration. They also make this call when parents return with food for the older nestlings.
The second call is a soft whirring call that is used by males and females while rearing for copulation or when they are close to their mates in open water. They also sing a duet of copulation trills during mounting, with opposite roles during reverse mountings. The third call that is distinct from the previous one is the threat call. It is a harsh, rapidly repeated chittering given when defending the mate or the nest platform against intruders. If they are successful in defending themselves, they let out a “triumph” call together as a pair. The last call that has been observed is the alarm call. It consists of single sharp chirps given by parents at irregular intervals; it can be best rendered as “kowee”. Brooded chicks also respond by hiding beneath back feathers when their parents let out this call.
Eared Grebe Size
Eared Grebes are small-bodied birds at a length of 11.8–13.8 inches and a wingspan of 20.5–21.6 ounces. Their heads seem disproportionately small when compared to their bodies and are supported by their thin necks. Their bills are also very thin and their backs are of a sleek, oval shape that leads to a tailless and fluffy rear. Breeding birds have a
crested head that is lost during the non-breeding seasons. These birds are capable of increasing their body by nearly three times and thus can weigh anywhere from 7 to 26 ounces.
Eared Grebe Behavior
Eared Grebes are waterbirds that rarely make an appearance on land. The few times that they do outside of breeding seasons indicate illness, soiled plumages, or faulty thermoregulation. They typically paddle around lakes and ponds like ducks while foraging for food. They are excellent swimmers and divers and are well suited to wetland habitats, but unfortunately, this skill comes with a price as they are less suited to walking on land. Their flight is also done with significant amounts of difficulty as they take their strides with their neck outstretched and their feet trailing behind.
Like many other Grebes, these birds have elaborate courtship dances that occur during the breeding seasons before copulation. It begins with the hiccupping advertising call before progressing into a series of dives, raising the feathers, distinctly specific body positions, and sprinting across the water with the neck extended. Pairs also bow to each other and fluff up their tail feathers before suddenly diving and then rising up almost completely out of the water, a behavior that has been termed as the “penguin posture”. These elaborate movements often establish a monogamous bond for the breeding seasons, with pairs lasting for a couple of years together.
Hostility between males is also common during the breeding seasons. While face-to-face flights with their bills are uncommon, these birds frequently dash across the water surface towards an opponent. They may also attack by coming out of the water in a torpedo effect. Attacked birds escape by diving or skittering across the surface. Adults have also been observed to be pecking at the young, especially if they are not their own.
Eared Grebe Diet
These birds mainly feed on aquatic invertebrates like brine shrimp and brine flies, along with the other occasional aquatic life. Their insect prey mainly includes aquatic beetles, dragonfly larvae, flies, and mayflies. They also consume crustaceans, mollusks, tadpoles, and a handful of small fish. During their autumn stopovers at large alkaline lakes, they switch to brine shrimp. Young nestlings are typically primarily fed insects in the initial few weeks. Interestingly, Eared Grebes share the habit of eating feathers with other Grebes.
Eared Grebe Habitat
Eared Grebes breed in shallow lakes and ponds that generally lack fish, with prairie lakes being a popular choice for these waterbirds. They prefer nesting in lakes or large ponds that have extensive marshy borders but are rather opportunistic and may occupy new or temporary habitats if available. During migration and winter, they mainly hang around large freshwater and alkaline lakes. They gather in large groups in the saline waters in the Salton Sea, Great Salt Lake, and Mono Lake during migration in North America. They may also winter near islands in the salt ponds, saline lakes, along ocean coastlines in shallow water, and near the islands of the Gulf of California.
Range and Migration
Eared Grebes breed throughout southwestern Canada and the western United States. They are long-distant migrants and travel south at night towards almost all of Mexico during the winter. They fly nonstop and most frequently winter in islands in the Gulf of California, the Salton Sea, and the Baja California peninsula.
Eared Grebe Lifecycle
Breeding seasons involve elaborate courtship rituals prior to copulation. After mating, females lay their only brood of the season; the clutch size of the brood is typically 1–6 eggs, with it most frequently being anywhere between 3 and 5. Incubation is done by both parents for around 3-4 weeks with the chicks covered with down and able to swim within
hours of hatching. They also ride on their parents’ backs. They gain independence when they’re 3 weeks old.
These birds typically nest on lakes and wetlands that are not bordered by trees. Within these lakes and wetlands, males and females select a nest site in shallow waters with cattail, sedges, or rushes. Both members of the pair choose the nest site and construct the nest. Both males and females build a floating platform with a shallow bowl of aquatic plants that they attach to reeds or other emergent vegetation. The nest is then set on a foundation of bent-over reeds with vegetation that the pair has retrieved from the bottom of the lake.
Anatomy of an Eared Grebe
They are small waterbirds with an even smaller head, a thin neck, and a thin bill. Their backs are sleek and are a distinct oval shape. Their rears are tailless and fluffy, making them seem even smaller in appearance. Breeding birds have a distinctive crest of feathers that stands up to make their heads seem marginally larger. These birds are larger than Wilson’s Phalaropes but smaller than Mallards.
Eared Grebes are enigmatic birds. Multiple of their observed traits continue to stand out, such as their fleshy tongues that they use to crush their prey or to squeeze out the salty behavior. This trait is what has led scientists to dub them as avian whales. Other traits include their sun-bathing behaviors, where they raise their rumps and expose the dark
sides to the sun.
Events like habitat loss due to the draining of wetlands and agricultural conversion have posed a threat to them for many decades, with mass deaths of these birds occurring sometimes due to multiple reasons. Urban landscapes like parking lots also sometimes look like waterbodies to these birds, leaving them stranded when they land there and are unable to leave. In 2011, around 1,500 Grebes died when they landed at a Walmart parking lot in Utah. Events like these remind us that we need to be more mindful of the environment around us so that we can preserve the natural treasures that the earth continues to offer to us. However, their conservation status places them under Least Concern, and one might even catch a glimpse of their large flocks in marshy and saline wetlands during spring and fall.
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At the Bird Watching Academy & Camp we help kids, youth, and adults get excited and involved in bird watching. We have several monthly subscription boxes that you can subscribe to. Our monthly subscription boxes help kids, youth, and adults learn about birds, bird watching, and bird conservation.
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Bird Watching Binoculars for IdentifyingEared Grebes
The most common types of bird watching binoculars for viewing Eared Grebes are 8×21 binoculars and 10×42 binoculars. Bird Watching Academy & Camp sells really nice 8×21 binoculars and 10×42 binoculars. You can view and purchase them here.
Eared Grebe Stickers
Stickers are a great way for you to display your love for bird watching and the Eared Grebe. We sell a monthly subscription sticker pack. The sticker packs have 12 bird stickers. These sticker packs will help your kids learn new birds every month.
Bird Feeders For Eared Grebes
There are many types of bird feeders. Bird feeders are a great addition to your backyard. Bird feeders will increase the chances of attracting birds drastically. Both kids and adults will have a great time watching birds eat at these bird feeders. There are a wide variety of bird feeders on the market and it is important to find the best fit for you and your backyard.
Bird Houses For Eared Grebes
There are many types of bird houses. Building a bird house is always fun but can be frustrating. Getting a bird house for kids to watch birds grow is always fun. If you spend a little extra money on bird houses, it will be well worth every penny and they’ll look great.