I have been seeing some pied-billed grebes in area marshes this spring. It is a real treat to watch these small waterfowl swimming in the water and then, upon seeing me, slowly submerge into the depths. No wonder the bird is also called a hell-diver and occasionally described as part bird-part submarine.
I suspect most everyone is familiar with this common resident of lakes and marshes across the region. To the casual observer, the pied-billed grebe might be described as a small duck-like bird about the size of a pigeon. Their color is a rather nondescript brown in both males and females. Their white, short, and thick bill is darkened around the middle and is the reason for the name pied-billed a reference to a spotted or mottled bill.
Like other grebes, the pied-billed grebe is not a duck. Instead of having webbed feet, they have lobes on their toes similar to that of a coot. And although they don’t look like predators, they are. Pied-billed grebes feed on aquatic invertebrates such as insects as well as crayfish and minnows.
John James Audubon must have found the pied-billed grebes, or what he knew as pied-billed dobchicks quite interesting. I think he had a soft spot for these little “hell-divers.” Here is a bit of his description of the species from his Birds of America:
“There go the little Dobchicks, among the tall rushes and aquatic grasses that border the marsh. They have seen me, and now I watch them as they sink gently backwards into the deep water, in the manner of frightened frogs. Cunning things! “Water-witches,” as they call you, I clearly see your bills, although you have withdrawn all of you save those parts, and sneak off towards yon great bunch of bulrushes. Well, speed on, and may safety attend you! Nature has granted you means of eluding your enemies, and I am heartily glad to see that you have profited by her instructions.”
Pied-billed grebes are rather secretive, and often stay hidden amongst the cattails and bulrushes. But their calls announce their presence. I would guess that most everyone who has spent any amount of time within earshot of a marsh in the summer, particularly early or late in the day, would recognize their call. They have a wailing call and a rattle call which has been described as a gulping “kuk-kuk-kuk.” I have put a link to recordings of their calls from Cornell University’s All About Birds website along with the text of this Natural North Dakota. Upon hearing the calls, I can just about guarantee your response will be something like “So that’s what that is. I have heard that a lot.”
Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.