Horned Grebe

Podiceps auritus

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.

Horned Grebe

Horned Grebe

Horned Grebe, non-breeding plumage

Horned Grebe, non-breeding plumage

Juvenile Horned Grebe

Juvenile Horned Grebe

Horned Grebe swimming in a lake with chicks on her back

Horned Grebe swimming in a lake with chicks on her back

Appearance & Identification

What do Horned Grebes look like?

The Horned Grebe is a small waterbird with a fairly long neck and a short, dagger-like bill. When seen out of the water, flying birds show large webbed feet that extend well beyond their short tails. These birds are named for the golden feathers on the side of their head that they can raise to look like horns. However, this feature is only present in the breeding season when they look remarkably different from their winter plumage.

Breeding birds have rufous necks and flanks and dark gray backs. The feathers on the sides and back of the head grow denser, creating a large-headed appearance with a jet-black throat and protruding cheeks. A broad golden streak runs from their bill to the back of the head, and the crown is black.

In the non-breeding season, Horned Grebes have a black cap, nape, and back. Their flanks are mottled grayish, and their breast, throat, and cheeks are white. Their eyes are bright red, and their bills are dark with a pale tip.

Females are similar to males, although they are smaller and less colorful in the breeding season. The downy young chicks are dark grey with a red spot behind their bill and a black and white striped head. Older juveniles look similar to non-breeding adults.

Horned Grebes are most easily confused with the similar Eared Grebe or Black-necked Grebe as it is known in Eurasia.

<p><strong>Horned Grebe, breeding plumage</strong></p>

Horned Grebe, breeding plumage

<p><strong>Horned Grebe, non-breeding plumage</strong></p>

Horned Grebe, non-breeding plumage

How big are Horned Grebes?


Adult Horned Grebes have a body length of roughly 12 to 15 inches or 31 to 38 centimeters.


Most birds weigh between 10½ and 20 ounces or 300 to 570 grams, with males typically the larger and heavier sex.


These waterbirds have relatively small, pointed wings and a wingspan of 23.2 to 25.6 inches (59 to 65 cm).

Horned Grebe swimming in a loch

Horned Grebe swimming in a loch

Calls & Sounds

What sound does a Horned Grebe make?

Horned Grebes are most vocal before and during the breeding season when pairing up and defending their territory. They produce an ‘aaaarhh’ advertising call when finding a mate and a high-pitched trilling call after conflict with neighboring pairs and when mating.

Horned Grebe swimming and calling

Horned Grebe swimming and calling


What do Horned Grebes eat?

Horned Grebes are predators that hunt small aquatic and marine creatures. Crustaceans and fish are most important in their winter diet, but breeding birds focus on freshwater invertebrates like beetles, dragonflies, and caddisflies.

What do Horned Grebe chicks eat?

Chicks eat aquatic invertebrates provided by both parents for approximately two weeks.

Horned Grebe, non-breeding, feeding on fish

Horned Grebe, non-breeding, feeding on fish

Habitat & Distribution

What is the habitat of a Horned Grebe?

Horned Grebes inhabit sheltered coastal waters and large lakes and rivers in the non-breeding season. They live in quiet, well-vegetated shallow ponds and pools in marshes when nesting.

What is the range of a Horned Grebe?

Horned Grebes are widespread in the Northern Hemisphere. In North America, they occur in Alaska, Canada, the Lower 48 States, and Mexico. In Eurasia, these birds live in the United Kingdom and several other European countries, extending west through Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, China, and Japan.

Where do Horned Grebes live?

Horned Grebes are waterbirds that live in both fresh and saltwater habitats. With their legs positioned so far back on their body, these agile divers are very clumsy on land. They are fast in flight but need a good run-up along the water to get airborne.

How rare are Horned Grebes?

Horned Grebes are generally uncommon. They have declined across much of their distribution, and their breeding range has contracted dramatically in many areas. Although increasingly rare, they may be locally common in some parts of their wintering range where large flocks gather. About 80% of the world population lives in North America, and although widespread, they are relatively rare in Europe and Asia.

Horned Grebe looking for food

Horned Grebe looking for food

Where can you see Horned Grebes in the US?

Horned Grebes nest across much of Alaska, but birdwatchers in the north of states like Montana and North Dakota could also spot nesting birds in the spring and summer. Overwintering birds gather in sheltered coastal areas along the West and East Coasts and on inland waterbodies in the Southeast.

They don’t have specific migration routes, so American birdwatchers could spot Horned Grebes in almost any freshwater habitat across the lower 48 during their spring (April) and fall (October) migrations.

Where can you see Horned Grebes in Canada?

Horned Grebes are widespread breeding visitors to the western half of Canada, from Manitoba to British Columbia and north to the Yukon. They overwinter around Vancouver and along the west coast of British Columbia.

Where can you see Slavonian Grebes in the UK?

Despite being a rare species, Slavonian Grebes can be seen in the UK at all times of the year. A small breeding population of less than thirty pairs nests on lochs in the northeast of Scotland each summer.

They are more common in winter when nearly a thousand individuals visit the coast. The highest numbers occur around the Scottish coastline, but birdwatchers can also see these birds along England’s northeast coast and from East Anglia to Cornwall in the southeast and east.

Horned Grebe, breeding plumage, swimming in the lake

Horned Grebe, breeding plumage, swimming in the lake

Lifespan & Predation

How long do Horned Grebes live?

Horned Grebes have a maximum recorded lifespan of just five years.

What are the predators of Horned Grebes?

Adult Horned Grebes are agile in the water and have few predators, although they are at risk from mammals like Mink when incubating their eggs. Their eggs are vulnerable to various birds and mammals, including Gulls, Corvids (Common Raven, Hooded Crow, etc.) Raccoons, and Mink.

Are Horned Grebes protected?

Horned Grebes are protected by the following acts:

  • Migratory Bird Treaty Act 1918 - United States of America
  • Migratory Birds Convention Act 1994 - Canada
  • Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 - United Kingdom

Are Horned Grebes endangered?

Horned Grebes are listed as ‘Vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List, which is just one category away from being officially globally endangered. A small breeding population on Canada’s Magdalen Islands is considered endangered.

Why are Horned Grebes endangered?

Horned Grebes have suffered most from the destruction of their breeding habitat. The primary causes are forestry, climate change, and agricultural and rural development. These diving birds are also vulnerable to entanglement in fishing nets and oil-fouling in marine habitats.

Pair of Horned Grebes collecting nesting materials

Pair of Horned Grebes collecting nesting materials

Nesting & Breeding

Where do Horned Grebes nest?

Horned Grebes nest on small ponds, marshes with open water, and quiet lake inlets. Pairs work together to construct a nest that may be built up from the bottom in shallow water, attached to emerging vegetation, or built on top of a rock in the water.

When do Horned Grebes nest?

Horned Grebes have a long nesting period across their range, with egg-laying between April and August, depending on latitude. Their eggs hatch after 22 to 25 days, and the chicks leave the nest soon after. They can swim and dive right away but are carried on their parents’ backs constantly for their first few days, spending more and more time in the water after that.

What do Horned Grebe eggs look like?

Horned Grebes typically lay four to seven chalky white eggs that stain reddish-brown over time. Each egg measures 44 - 45 millimeters long and 30 - 31 millimeters wide.

Do Horned Grebes mate for life?

Horned Grebes are monogamous and form close pair bonds during migration or in the winter before. Some may remain together for more than one nesting season, and long-term pair bonds are possible, although this requires more study.

<p><strong>Horned Grebe sitting on the nest</strong></p>

Horned Grebe sitting on the nest

<p><strong>Nest of a Horned Grebe with five eggs</strong></p>

Nest of a Horned Grebe with five eggs


Are Horned Grebes aggressive?

Horned Grebes can be highly gregarious in the winter and during migration, sometimes forming flocks up to 500-strong. They are more territorial when breeding, however, and males may engage in energetic fights when securing a partner.

Where do Horned Grebes sleep at night?

Horned Grebes sleep on the water with their necks laid flat on their back and their heads nestled down and facing forward.

Horned Grebe resting on the water

Horned Grebe resting on the water


Do Horned Grebes migrate?

Horned Grebes are highly migratory, moving at night between inland breeding grounds and coastal overwintering areas each year. They often wait for their pond to begin freezing before leaving and time their return as the ice melts on inland water bodies.

How far do Horned Grebes migrate?

Horned Grebes are medium to long-distance migrants. Most fly hundreds of miles while others cover short distances, but few remain in the same area all year.

Where do Horned Grebes migrate to?

In North America, most Horned Grebes nest in Alaska, Western Canada, and the far North of the Lower 48 from Washington to Minnesota. These birds overwinter along the west coast from Alaska to Baja California and the East Coast from Florida to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. They also overwinter inland in the Southeast and along the Gulf Coast to Texas.

In Eurasia, Slavonian Grebes breed in a broad front from Iceland and Scotland in the West to Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula in the East. These birds migrate to coastal areas around Western, Northern, and Southern Europe, parts of the Middle East, and the coast of China, Japan, and South Korea.

Enjoyed this content? Share it now

Quick Facts


Scientific name:

Podiceps auritus

Other names:

Slavonian Grebe



Conservation status:




31cm to 38cm


59cm to 65cm


300g to 570g

Other birds in the Grebes family

Get the best of Birdfact

Brighten up your inbox with our exclusive newsletter, enjoyed by thousands of people from around the world.

Your information will be used in accordance with Birdfact's privacy policy. You may opt out at any time.

© 2024 - Birdfact. All rights reserved. No part of this site may be reproduced without our written permission.