The pied-billed grebe isn’t going to win any beauty contests, but it is supremely adapted as a diving bird.
With the marshes across the southern part of the state escaping their rigid ice bonds, waterbirds will be returning soon. Among the superstars such as Canada geese, great blue herons, night-crowned herons, pintails, egrets and more, there will be a small brown bird. As it swims and dives among the newly growing cattails, it will be inconspicuous as it is also rather nondescript and unassuming.
This bird is a pied-billed grebe, related to more flamboyant grebes such as the eared grebe and the Western grebe. As a grebe, it is a diving bird that forages for most of its groceries underwater. Like other grebes, the pied-billed grebe’s toes are lobed not webbed like those of a duck.
Diving also requires that its feet are placed far back on the body. In fact, the Latin genus name for “grebe” means “feet at the buttocks”. Because of this specialty, grebes spend little time walking on land.
Another characteristic shared by grebes is that they eat copious amounts of their own feathers. Sometimes up to half their stomach contents is their own feathers. This is believed to serve two purposes. The first is to provide a sieve-like plug at the entrance to the intestine which prevents sharp objects from entering the gut. The other is to encapsulate indigestible matter so it can be disgorged as pellets, much as an owl does.
Unlike most other grebes that have intense red or yellow eyes, the pied-billed grebe’s eye is dark. Its bill is also different. Instead of a pointy, almost delicate looking bill, the pied-billed grebe has one that resembles a wedge. It is stout and thick, much more like the bill of an American coot than, say, a Clark’s grebe.
The pied-billed grebe is smaller than a coot but larger than a robin, and is mostly brown/gray. During the breeding season, they give in to fashion just a bit when the adults form a black vertical line around the ivory-colored bill and the throat and top of head darken. Juveniles will have stripes on the face.
It isn’t looks that will get the pied-billed grebe noticed though. They have one unique behavior that sets them apart from most diving other birds. Pied-billed grebes have the ability to control the amount of water in their feathers. This gives them great control over their buoyancy. They can, alligator style, submerge until just their eyes protrude from the water, “crash dive” straight down, swim just beneath the surface or dive to the bottom all by changing the amount of water their feathers hold.
Pied-billed grebes are surprisingly common, the most common of the grebes. You will find them in most marshes across the country. They tend to hug the edges of the vegetation where they feel the safest and will dive to avoid predators rather than take to the air with their laborious running take-off.
Pied-billed grebes could be the poster kids for the cliché, don’t judge a book by its cover. They aren’t the most beautiful of birds on the outside, but like Napoleon Dynamite, they’ve got skills.
TAX DAY is coming! Here is a chance to do something good with a bit of your tax return and make the day less painful.
Donate part of your tax return to support wildlife in Idaho!
On the second page of the Idaho Individual Tax form 40 you have the opportunity to donate to the “Nongame Wildlife Conservation Fund”.
Check-off this box on your next return or ask your tax preparer to mark the Nongame check-off on your behalf.
If you are not from Idaho, check with your own state wildlife agency about how you can help. Many states have a similar program.
Help Idaho Wildlife
When we traveled across the state in October, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates.
C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles!
See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live.
Wildlife License Plates
Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.
No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.
Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.
Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program. Go figure.
"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson
That is embarrassing but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.
Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.
Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.
"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman
"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.
To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version
Copies are also available at:
Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls
Perfect Light Photo Supply
Museum of Idaho
Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming
Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah
Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho