If you aren’t a birder, you probably haven’t heard of the pied-bill grebe. But, if you have explored the Humana Grand Allee wetlands in Beckley Creek Park, you have probably seen one!
This common pond swimming bird is widely dispersed throughout the lower 48 states and most of Canada. Like the silent hunters they are, pied-bill grebes are often compared to submarines for their ability to trap water in their feathers in order to adjust their buoyancy while swimming in ponds and marshes—often just their head is visible above water! This stealth ability enables the pied-bill grebe to hunt prey like small fish, crayfish, and mussels, as well as aquatic insects and frogs.
On a recent walk in the Humana Grand Allee, I spotted a juvenile pied-bill grebe that had just caught a large bullfrog for lunch. I spent roughly 20 minutes watching as the grebe tried mightily to swallow the large frog whole.
But how, you may ask, does a bird that size digest such large prey? A stomach full of feathers! Grebes are known for eating large quantities of their own feathers and will even feed them to newly born chicks. Often nearly half of a grebe’s stomach contents will be its own feathers! It is thought that the feathers form a protective plug inside the grebe much like a sieve that will trap indigestible prey parts (like frog bones) before entering the intestines. The feathers also aid in forming those indigestible prey parts into pellets that are regurgitated.
While clumsy on land, pied-bill grebes are expert swimmers. Their lobed feet are located near their rear end, propelling them quickly through the water. In fact, their genus name, Podilymbus podiceps, means “feet near the buttocks” in Latin!
Curious to find a pied-bill grebe? Head the Humana Grand Allee wetlands in Beckley Creek Park or Boulder Pond in Turkey Run Park and look carefully in the cattails and shoreline vegetation. If you’re lucky, you might see a pied-bill grebe having its’ next meal!