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.
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.
Horned Grebe, breeding plumage
Horned Grebe, non-breeding plumage
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 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 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.
Chicks eat aquatic invertebrates provided by both parents for approximately two weeks.
Horned Grebe, non-breeding, feeding on fish
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 Grebes have a maximum recorded lifespan of just five years.
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.
Horned Grebes are protected by the following acts:
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Horned Grebe sitting on the nest
Nest of a Horned Grebe with five eggs
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
31cm to 38cm
59cm to 65cm
300g to 570g
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.
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.
Great Crested Grebe
A common breeding resident diving water bird found throughout the UK and renowned for its enchanting courtship rituals.
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