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Horned Grebe

Named after their distinctive “horns”, these birds are known for their distinctive breeding plumage and red eyes.

Abundant but declining is how the population of Horned Grebe is described. Its range has been shrinking in recent years, though its population is difficult to monitor. Horned Grebes breed primarily in Canada, as well as adjacent parts of Alaska and the northernmost coterminous U.S., and winter widely across the southern and westernmost U.S.

With legs set far back on its body, the Horned Grebe does poorly on land and requires a long running takeoff from the water to become airborne. Wide varieties of displays are used during courtship, involving posture, swimming and diving, and weed gathering.


Description of the Horned Grebe


The Horned Grebe is a small swimming and diving bird with a compact body, medium length neck, somewhat large head, and a thin, pointed bill with a whitish tip. Breeding birds have a blackish head with a large, bold, golden yellow patch behind each eye, a reddish neck and flanks, and dark gray upperparts.  Length: 14 in.  Wingspan: 18 in.

Horned Grebe

Photograph © Glenn Bartley.


Sexes similar.

Seasonal change in appearance

Winter birds have a black cap, white cheeks, mostly white foreneck and gray hindheck, and grayish upperparts with whitish flanks.

Horned Grebe in winter plumage on the left.  Similar Eared Grebe on the right.

horned grebe


Juveniles resemble winter adults.


Horned Grebes breed on lakes with emergent vegetation, and winter in coastal waters and larger inland lakes that remain ice-free in the winter.


Horned Grebes dive to capture aquatic prey, primarily insects, but also crustaceans and fish.


Horned Grebes have legs set far back on their bodies, a position that is good for swimming but poor for walking on land.  To take flight they must have a running start, paddling furiously through the water while flapping their wings. They are usually seen swimming on the surface, and frequently diving in search of prey.


Horned Grebes breed across parts of Alaska, Canada, and the far northern portions of the central U.S. They winter primarily along both the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts, and occasionally on southern U.S. lakes. Horned Grebes may be declining, although their population is not well measured.

More information:

Wing Shape

The shape of a bird’s wing is often an indication of its habits and behavior. Fast flying birds have long, pointed wings. Soaring birds have long, broad wings. Different songbirds will have a slightly different wing shape. Some species look so much alike (Empidonax flycatchers) that scientists sometimes use the length of specific feathers to confirm a species’ identification.

Wing images from the University of Puget Sound, Slater Museum of Natural History

Fun Facts

A Horned Grebe courtship display involves a pair racing vertically across the water side by side with wings partly spread open and grasses or weeds held in their bills.

Because Horned Grebes require a running start in open water to take flight, they may become trapped if surface water freezes rapidly overnight.

Young Horned Grebes often ride on their swimming parents’ backs.


The Horned Grebe’s song is a trill, often in duet.  Calls include a descending whine ending with a rattle.


Similar Species

  • Eared Grebe
    Eared Grebes have thinner, more pointed bills, a black (in summer) or grayish (in winter) neck, and grayish cheeks in winter. 


The nest is a floating pile of plant material placed in shallow water.

Number: Usually lay 4-6 eggs.
Color: Whitish or pale greenish and often stained by nest material.

Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 22-25 days, and leave the nest shortly after hatching, though they continue to associate with the adults for some time, and are not capable of flight until age 8 weeks or more.


Bent Life History of the Horned Grebe

Bent Life History coming soon.


About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.

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