Eared grebes are North America’s most widespread member of the grebe family, and have a distinctive appearance, with golden tufts on the sides of their face. In the UK, where the species is much rarer, it is known as the black-necked grebe.
Eared grebes have two distinct plumages, molting into a basic plumage each winter from their more colorful summer breeding plumage. Males and females are alike in both basic and alternate plumage.
In summer, eared grebes have a distinctive appearance, with a flowing golden ‘ear tuft’ on each side of the face, next to the eyes. Their head is black, with a peaked crown, and their eyes are a vivid shade of red, ringed with orange to the outside and a yellow interior ring.
Their neck, breast and upper back are black, with warm rufous brown flanks. Wings are dark brown, with a white patch that is visible in flight. Legs and feet are dark, with a greenish tinge, and their bill is straight, narrow and light gray.
Non-breeding eared grebes lose their striking golden facial plumes and molt into an altogether drabber and more indistinct set of feathers. Their back, nape and upper wings become charcoal-black, while their lower wings and flanks turn a slightly lighter shade of grayish-black. They have a black cap, white patches behind the eyes, a white chin and a whitish breast and belly. Their bill darkens in winter, but their eyes remain dark red.
Juvenile eared grebes resemble non-breeding adults but have a brownish wash and some buff-orange feathering on the sides of their heads and neck.
Eared Grebe with summer plumage
A young Eared Grebe
A small member of the grebe family, the eared grebe is just over half the size of a mallard. There is no difference in size between males and females.
Black-necked Grebe looking for prey
Outside of the breeding season, eared grebes are silent, but when they are attempting to attract a mate or defending a nest, a fast, a range of vocalizations can be heard.
The male’s advertising call is a loud and repetitive ‘poo-ee-chk’ and the female’s response is the same but a softer, higher pitch. A harsh, chattering call is made in response to threats around the nest site, and a sharp alarm call instructs chicks to respond by hiding beneath their parents wing feathers in the early days after hatching.
Eared Grebe calling out to try and attract a mate
The diet of an eared grebe consists of aquatic creatures, including insects, crustaceans (particularly brine shrimp), larvae, molluscs, tadpoles, and small fish. Prey is caught on short dives below the water’s surface.
Young eared grebes are fed by their parents one at a time, with the chick riding on one parent’s back while the other adult bird passes food into their bill. Their diet is the same as an adult’s, with larvae and small shrimp being especially common in the early stages.
Black-necked Grebe riding on its parent's back
Black-necked Grebe (winter plumage) with fish in its beak
Eared grebes’ preferred habitat varies according to the time of year. During the breeding season, freshwater lakes, ponds, slow-flowing backwaters and shallow marshes with lush vegetation are favored. Sewage farms and algae-rich bodies of water also offer a suitable habitat for breeding and foraging.
Once breeding is complete, molting takes place and during this time, it’s common for eared grebes to temporarily relocate to saline lakes. After molting, eared grebes can mostly be found at reservoirs, coastal estuaries and lagoons and inland saline lakes.
The North American breeding range of eared grebes is concentrated on southwestern and south-central Canada and throughout the west-central United States.
The species is present in areas of California all year round, while along the Mexican border, winter populations gather and further south, across the whole of Mexico, large wintering grounds offer a temporary home to an influx of migratory grebes from further north.
In Europe, the breeding range of black-necked grebes extends from the British Isles and south Scandinavia in the west, through Russia and Central Asia to Western Siberia’s Ob Valley in the east. In winter, the southern limit of the species’ range reaches Morocco, Turkey, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The vast majority of the global population of eared grebes live in North America, with up to 60,000 individuals reported in summer at California’s Mono Lake, and between 10,000 and 20,000 pairs breeding in British Columbia.
In Europe, estimates indicate around 100,000 black-necked grebes, although these numbers may be inaccurate, with reports of 186,000 individuals at Lake Burdur in southwestern Turkey.
Eared Grebe swimming in natural habitat
Eared grebes are thought to be the most common and widespread grebe species, with a population estimated at between 3.9 and 4.2 million birds worldwide.
In the UK, where the species is known as the black-necked grebe, they are far less common, with only around 55 breeding pairs, and 115 overwintering birds recorded each year.
It is thought that the vast majority of North America’s breeding eared grebes spend winters on the islands around the Gulf of California, where hundreds of thousands gather after their post-breeding molt.
Numbers of black-necked grebes in the UK are relatively low, but do increase slightly in winter months. They are most commonly spotted at reservoirs, flooded gravel pits and estuaries, and Cornwall’s Fal Estuary and Dorset’s Poole Harbour frequently report winter sightings.
Profile of a Black-necked Grebe
From ringing records, the oldest known eared grebe reached 13 years and 10 months, although little data exists due to the previous use of aluminum bands which corrode when exposed to salty water.
First breeding age is also unknown, although it’s suggested that females may reach maturity earlier than males, and breeding is often underway by the second year.
Adult eared grebes are not especially at risk from predation, but accounts tell of mature birds being killed by mink, grey herons, western gulls and great horned owls.
Natural causes, particularly plunging temperatures, are a key factor in many nest failures. Snakes, minks, large fish, and birds of prey commonly raid the nests and eggs of breeding eared grebes, while American coots are known predators of eared grebe chicks and eggs.
In the United States, eared grebes are included in the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which makes it illegal to kill, capture, sell, trade or transport birds of this species.
In the UK, black-necked grebes are protected as Schedule 1 birds under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981, which makes it an offense to damage or destroy their eggs, nests and young, as well as it being illegal to deliberately kill, injure or capture an individual black-necked grebe.
Across their global range, eared grebes are considered a species of least concern and are not globally threatened. Global population estimates stand at up to 4.2 million individuals, making the species the most abundant of all grebes.
In the UK, black-necked grebes are rated as an Amber species on the British Birds of Conservation Concern list.
Eared Grebes performing a mating ritual
A floating nest platform is constructed by both the male and female, using twigs, and other plant matter and built up from an underwater level to become raised above the water’s surface.
It is anchored to flattened reeds or other aquatic vegetation to ensure it remains in place, and modifications continue after eggs have been laid. An internal flat layer is added to the nest cup, made from wet plant parts.
The nesting period for eared grebes is typically from late May to early July in both North America and Europe, but can last from April to August in the United States and Canada.
One brood is laid in a season, and the incubation period lasts around 21 days, with both parents taking turns on the nest.
Eggs laid by eared grebes measure 45 mm by 30 mm (1.8 in by 1.2 in) and are a pale chalky green or blue in colour with no streaks or speckling. A typical clutch consists of three to four eggs.
Eared grebes are monogamous for the duration of a single breeding season, raising one brood together. Pairs separate once they have raised their young, and do not reunite in subsequent years.
Black-necked Grebe sitting on its nest
Black-necked Grebe swimming with young
Eared grebes are a largely migratory species, although, in certain parts of their geographical range, populations may remain in the same territories all year round.
In northern North America, eared grebes are breeding residents only, shifting southwards once their young have been raised. However, in parts of California, the species can be seen all year round, while along the Texan border and across much of Mexico, they are strictly winter-only visitors.
Northern Europe and Central Asia’s black-necked grebes are also mainly migratory, usually moving southwards into southern Europe, north Africa and southwestern Asia.
South Africa and Namibia are home to year-round populations of black-necked grebes.
North America is home to the majority of the world’s eared grebe population, with up to 4.1 million birds recorded in 1997.
The species are mostly migratory, and eared grebes that breed in Canada and the northern United States shift southwards, mainly to California and into Mexico once the breeding season ends.
Small numbers of black-necked grebes breed in the UK each year, with around 55 pairs recorded on a yearly basis. These are joined by the arrival of migrating birds from northern Europe during winter months, although numbers remain relatively low.
Juvenile Eared Grebe stretching its wings
Mink, coyotes, tawny owls, herring gulls, yellow-footed gulls and gray herons have been recorded to eat adult eared grebes, while their eggs and young are commonly targeted by other waterbirds, including American coots, as well as by snakes, raccoons, mink, coyotes, and ravens.
28cm to 34cm
56cm to 60cm
250g to 350g
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