The little grebe may be tiny compared to its relative the great-crested grebe, but is a skilled diver and has a reputation for being noisy and feisty, with an excellent survival instinct. Little grebes, also known as dabchicks, have perfected the art of disappearing underwater at the first sign of threat, only to resurface a safe distance away.
Little Grebe also known as a dabchick
Little Grebe swimming with chicks
Little Grebe feeding on fish
25cm to 29cm
40cm to 45cm
100g to 140g
Little grebes are small, rounded water birds, with plumages that vary according to the time of year. In breeding season, little grebes are blackish-brown, with a chestnut throat and cheeks, and a pale yellowish patch at the base of the bill. Their flanks are a lighter brown, fading to a paler tail, which appears fluffy. Their legs are greenish, and placed far back on their bodies, meaning that they can only walk very clumsily on land.
The non-breeding plumage of a little grebe is less vibrant, with grey-brown upperparts and crown, a whitish throat, chin and breast, and buff-brown streaky markings on the face, neck and flanks.
Sexes are alike in appearance, although females are usually slightly smaller than males.
The plumage of juvenile little grebes is similar to that of non-breeding adults, but features more dark markings on the face, with an overall darker appearance than the buff-brown of adults.
Little Grebe swimming with young
Little grebes are by far the smallest members of the grebe family, and also the smallest British fish-eating waterbird, with males slightly larger than females in length, weight and wingspan:
Little Grebe family
Little grebes are noisy birds, with both males and females emitting a powerful whinnying trill. A harsh alarm call that sounds like ‘weeeib’ can also be heard around the nest site when threats are detected.
Little Grebe swimming
The diet of little grebes comprises insects, small fish, and amphibians, particularly small newts and frogs.
Crane flies and mayflies and their larvae are among the most important food sources, and crustaceans and molluscs are also eaten.
Baby little grebes are able to swim and hunt almost immediately and follow a similar diet to adults from the outset, eating small insects and their larvae from the water’s surface, before they quickly master the art of diving for prey.
Little Grebe with chick calling for food
A range of wetland environments offer a suitable habitat for breeding little grebes, including lakes, reservoirs, bays, slow rivers and canals, and gravel pits with plenty of vegetation and shelter around the fringes.
They are unable to walk well on land, so spend much of their lives on water or at the very edges of lake shores.
In winter months, vegetation cover becomes less important and little grebes become more common at estuaries and sheltered coasts.
Little grebes are resident across Europe from the British Isles in the west, north as far as parts of southern Scandinavia, into Poland in the east, and along the Mediterranean coast into North Africa in the south.
Breeding occurs further east, throughout eastern Europe and into Central Asia. Resident populations are also present across sub-Saharan Africa, south Asia, and parts of east and south-east Asia.
Across Europe, countries with notable populations of little grebes include Hungary, Germany and Poland.
Populations in Scandinavia have increased in recent decades as a result of warmer conditions throughout the year.
Little Grebe swimming near the edge of a river
With a population of around 3,650 to 7,300 breeding pairs in the UK, little grebes are not the most common waterbirds, but during winter, this number increases to up to 15,000 birds, and sightings become less rare.
Globally, little grebes are relatively common and widespread, with a total population across Europe estimated at up to 3.5 million birds.
Little grebes breed throughout the UK, but are not usually found in upland areas or the extreme northern regions of Scotland, south-west England and much of the interior of Wales.
In winter, it’s common for little grebe populations to shift temporarily towards coastal and estuary environments, and sightings are concentrated in the Thames Estuary, Chew Valley Lake and Rutland Water.
Little Grebe gliding along on the water
The average lifespan of a little grebe is thought to be between 10 and 15 years, with first-time breeding typical at one year.
Due to their tiny size, little grebes are at risk of predation from a number of birds, animals, and even fish.
Northern pike are known to eat little grebe hatchlings, while birds such as herons and cormorants are also a threat.
Due to the species rarely spending any time on land, little grebes are not typically at risk from land predators such as foxes, but water-dwelling mammals, such as otters, may sometimes catch them.
Little grebes are included in the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1991, which offers them protection against being knowingly killed, injured or taken into captivity.
Little grebes are classed as a species of least concern and are ranked as Green on the British Birds of Conservation Concern list.
Due to their size, cold winters may impact survival, and notable declines in numbers have followed the harshest winter seasons, particularly in Britain in 1962-1963 and in the Netherlands in 1984-1985.
Little Grebe flapping its wings
As they’re unable to walk well on land, little grebes’ nest sites are located in vegetation at the edges of wetlands and in reedbeds.
A floating nest is built from plant matter, sticks, grasses, moss and reeds, and anchored to the stems of waterside plants.
The breeding season for little grebes takes place between February and September, although most are laid between April and late June. Between four and seven eggs are usually laid per clutch, and are off-white to cream in colour, measuring 38 mm by 26 mm (1.5 in by 1 in).
The incubation period lasts for 19 to 23 days, with males and females sharing the task.
Little grebes raise two to three broods together in a typical season and are a monogamous species, usually remaining paired for longer than one breeding season.
Outside of the breeding season they become solitary, but pair up again with an elaborate courtship ritual at the start of each spring.
Little Grebe parent at nest with hungry chicks
Little grebes are generally solitary birds, but sometimes nest in loose colonies, in groups of between 5 and 30 birds. They avoid danger by diving under the water’s surface, where they can remain for up to 30 seconds.
They regularly associate with other larger waterbirds, such as coots and mallards, feeding on prey that is disturbed and brought to the water’s surface by the movement of the larger birds.
Little Grebe swimming in lake
Some migration does occur, particularly where the lakes and reservoirs used for breeding freeze in winter.
Relocation to coastal wetlands or estuaries is common in winter, and in the eastern part of their European range, migration west and south is frequently observed until conditions improve the following spring.
Little grebes are native to the UK, both breeding and spending winters in the British Isles.
They do temporarily move to coasts, estuaries and lakes without vegetation during winter months, but return to canals, ponds, and inland lakes to breed.
Little Grebe taking off from water
Little grebes are largely sedentary and remain in their home waters for extended periods of time. However, they are able to fly considerable distances, which can especially be observed during migration from frozen inland waters to ice-free estuaries and coasts in winter months.
Although duckling-sized, and similar in appearance to smaller ducks, little grebes belong to a distinct and separate family of waterbirds called grebes.
The Horned Grebe is a widespread but globally threatened waterbird that has a dramatic makeover between breeding and non-breeding plumage. Known as Slavonian Grebes in the United Kingdom, these diving hunters are most abundant in North America and relatively rare in the Old World.
One of North America’s largest grebe species, red-necked grebes have a distinctive chestnut-and-black summer plumage and an eye-catching courtship ritual that can be seen at shallow lakes across the northern hemisphere as pairs form at the start of the breeding season.
Great Crested Grebe
A common breeding resident diving water bird found throughout the UK and renowned for its enchanting courtship rituals.
Brighten up your inbox with our exclusive newsletter, enjoyed by thousands of people from around the world.
© 2023 - Birdfact. All rights reserved. No part of this site may be reproduced without our written permission.