Red-necked Grebes are known for the wide variety of elaborate courtship displays they participate in, although these are not as common on the breeding grounds as one might expect given that many pairs have formed prior to reaching breeding areas. Storms can produce waves which destroy many Red-necked Grebe nests and eggs.
Red-necked Grebes are very territorial, not only against other Red-necked Grebes but also against other water birds. A variety of chases and attacks are used, including an underwater attack in which the grebe swims underneath the intruder and jabs its underside with its bill.
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Description of the Red-necked Grebe
The Red-necked Grebe is a large grebe with a yellowish bill, dark gray upperparts, and a white throat and cheeks. Reddish neck and breast.
Length: 18 in. Wingspan: 24 in.
Seasonal change in appearance
Breast and neck become whitish in the winter.
Juveniles have black and white stripes on the face.
Lakes, ponds, and saltwater bays.
Insects and fish, as well as other aquatic life.
Forages from the surface or by diving.
Young will ride on the back of the adults.
Breeds from Alaska to eastern Canada and in parts of the northern U.S. Winters along the east and west coasts. Also occurs in Europe and Asia.
Red-necked Grebes are very aggressive when on territory during the breeding season, actively chasing away potential rivals.
Great Horned Owls and mink prey on incubating adults.
“Crick-crick” calls and loud rattling or raspy notes are given on the breeding grounds.
The nest is a floating platform of plant materials.
Eggs: 4 to 5.
Incubation and fledging:
– Young hatch at 20-23 days.
– Young fledge (leave the nest) shortly after hatching but remain with the adults for some time.
Bent Life History of the Red-necked Grebe
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
At the time the Bent Life History was written, the Red-necked Grebe was called the Holboell’s Grebe.
COLYMBUS HOLBCELLI (Reinhardt).
The extensive, deep-water marshes about the southern end of Lake Winnipegosis, intersected by numerous sluggish streams or dotted with many small, shallow ponds, all of which are full of fish or other forms of aquatic life , furnish ideal breeding grounds for this or this and other water fowl. The banks of the Waterhen River, which flows northward from Lake Winnipegosis into Waterhen Lake, are broadly lined with many miles of tall golden canes swarm ing with bird life of various kinds; countless yellow-beaded blackbirds are busy with their nesting in the densest canes or clinging to tree tops of the swaying stalks and pouring out their ceaseless chatter; Franklin’s gulls or black terns are flying overhead with gentle notes of protest; various species of ducks are swimming in the creeks and pond holes; and the graceful western grebes glide in and out among e canes where their nests are hidden. Here the shy Holboell’s greebe breeds in abundance, probably more abundantly than anywhere se throughout its extensive range; though it is so seldom seen that one does not realize how common it is until a systematic search is made for nests. Waterhen River and the lake into which it flows are said to have been so named on account of the abundance there of this species, although the name “waterhen,” or “poule d’eau,” is applied to any of the grebes or coots.
Throughout the month of June, 1913, we found a great many nests of this grebe in various localities in this region. Al though it frequented the vicinity of the same swamps, in which the western grebes and horned grebes were breeding, we did not find any nests of Holbrell’s grebe actually in the canes (Phragmites communis). All of the nests we found were in more open situations and were more or less widely scattered. On June 7 we found, what might almost be called a colony, seven nests, in an extensive tract of short, dead, broken-down flags and reeds which extended out into the lake for a hundred yards or more near the entrance to the river. As the water was 3 or 4 feet deep, I had to work from a canoe and experienced some difficulty in photographing the nests; for, with the tripod standing in the water, the camera was but little above the surface. Even in such an open situation the nests were surprisingly inconspicuous and it required the practised eye of my guide to locate most of them.- They were generally placed where the broken-down reeds (Scirpus lacustris) were thickest and often where they were so matted together that it was difficult to push a canoe through them. They were low, flat, carelessly built structures, raised but slightly above the surface, in which the eggs were wet and almost awash, and were made of dead and rotten reeds and flags, water mosses, algae and other drift rubbish. The eggs were usually wholly or partially covered with the nesting material. During several visits to this locality I saw but one Holboell’s grebe near its nest and only occasionally in the distance; though I lay in wait for them for a long time at some little distance in the canes.
It is certainly one of the shyest of the water birds. Its hearing must be very acute; for only rarely could I surprise one in the marshes, when it would disappear instantly. What few birds I saw were generally swimming at a distance, singly or in pairs, often far out on the lake, where they always dove long before I could get within gunshot range. Only once did I succeed in surprising one on its nest and get a fleeting glimpse. Mr. Herbert K. Job had located a nest in a little cove on a nearby pond; we approached it cautiously, paddling silently around a little point and into the cove; we were just in time to see the grebe stand up in the nest, hastily attempt to cover the eggs, glide off into the water, and disappear in the reeds so quickly that we could hardly realize what had happened. This was a larger, better built, and probably a more typical nest than those described above; it was floating in water about 3 feet deep and anchored near the edge of growing flags (Typha latifolia) and reeds (Scirpus lacustris); it measured 24 inches in diameter, the inner cavity was 6 inches across and slightly hollowed, and the rim was built up 2 or 3 inches above the water; it was made principally of dead reeds and flags, with a few green stems of the same, matted together with a mass of algae and water mosses; it was lined with well-rotted flags.
Throughout the greater portion of its breeding range the Holboell’s grebe is a widely scattered, solitary species. It breeds to some extent in the sloughs and marshes of the northern plains and prairie regions, but is more universally common in the marshy lakes and in the timbered regions of northern Canada, where one or two pairs only are usually found in each of the smaller lakes.
Dr. Joseph Grinnell (1900) found this grebe breeding quite com only in the delta of the Kowak River, Alaska, in June, 1899, where early every pond or lake was the home of a single pair. He describes as follows.
We had just moored our steamer to the river bank and I was pushing my way among the willows back toward a strip of spruces when I was startled a series of most lugubrious cries from directly in front of us.
After a moment’s hesitation I concluded it must be some species of loon, although I had never heard such a note before. Advancing as quietly as possible I cam upon a small lake which was almost surrounded by spruces and margined on my side with willows. I could see nothing on the surface for some minutes. A loon would surely have shown himself during that time. Suddenly the curious cries broke forth again, and there within 20 yards of me, in a thin patch of grass growing near the shore, were two grebes resting on the water. They both took part in the ” song,” though the voice of one was notably weaker than that of the other. One of the birds would start with a long wail and then the other would chime in with a similar note, both winding pup with a series of quavering cries very much like the repeated whinnies of a horse. During these vocal demonstrations the neck would be thrown forward and the head and bill tilted upward at an angle of 45°. During the performance the birds were nearly facing each other, but at the conclusion one, presumably the male, would slowly swim around the other. A slight movement on my part spoiled this interesting scene, for both birds instantly disappeared beneath the water, leaving scarcely a ripple. Finally I barely discerned the head and neck of one near a snag in the dark reflection of the opposite shore.
He says of its nest:
“The nest consisted of a floating mass of sodden marsh grass, a foot in diameter. It was anchored among standing grass in about 2 feet of water. It was 20 feet from the shore on one side and about the same distance from the edge of the ice, which still existed in a large floe in the center of the lake. The top of this raft of dead grass presented a saucer-shaped depression, which was 2 inches above the surface of the surrounding water. The eggs lay wholly un covered and could be plainly seen from shore.”
Mr. P.M. Sillowat (1902) found a small colony of Holboell’s grebes in Swan Lake, Montana, where he located five pairs of the birds and collected seven sets of eggs on dates ranging from June 4 to 20, 1902. The nests were located in an extensive growth of buck brush and reeds which lined the margin of the lake and covered a marshy area of about a square mile. Most of the nests were placed among the reeds and made of the usual materials. Two of the nests were among the back brush, where the water was over 2 feet deep; in one “the material was piled upon coarse twigs of buck brush, apparently brought up from the bottom “; the other “was made on de pressed branches of the bushes, a large, strong mass of decayed reeds with some new material intermingled in the top.”
Mr. Edmonde S. Currier (1904) refers to a colony of from 6 to 10 pairs which he found breeding in Leech Lake, Minnesota, in 1902 and 1903.
“One nest was high and dry on a muskrat house–a hollow In the side of the house, and about 10 inches above the water. The muskrat house was in a patch of tall canes, growing in deep, open water, forming a small island. The other nests were similar in situation, style of architecture, and material used. They varied only in size, and this depended upon the time the birds had been laying. Nests containing only one egg were simply irregular piles or rafts of floating flags soft and rotting, with the egg often awash and covered with foam. In more advanced sets the nests formed quite a mass of material, with a deep cup above water line. No birds were seen on the nests, or leaving them, but In 1902 I saw one swimming away from a patch of canes in open water that contained a nest.
The Holboell’s grebe raises only one brood during the sea son, but if the nest is robbed a second set of eggs is promptly laid. The set generally consists of f our or five eggs; sometimes three are considered enough; six eggs are occasionally laid and rarely seven or even eight. The eggs resemble closely those of other grebes in general appearance and >ary greatly in size, so that it is not always easy to identify them. In shape they vary from nearly ” ovate” to “elliptical oval,” “elongate ovate” or to nearly “fusiform.”
The color of the clean, freshly-laid egg varies from pale bluish white to “cartridge buff,” but the color, which is never quite pure, soon becomes partly or wholly obscured by muddy, dirty, nest stains and the egg is often plastered over with mud and bits of nest material, giving it a dark mottled appearance. Much of this can be washed off, but the stains seem to be indelible.
The measurements of 60 eggs, in the United States National Museum, average 53.7 by 34.5 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 64.5 by 37.5, 49 by 33, and 50.5 by 30 millimeters.
The period of incubation proved to be 22 or 23 days for eggs of this species which we hatched out in our incubators.
The young are very precocious and can dive and swim instinctively soon after they have hatched. As soon as they are able to feed and to swim about they may be seen riding in safety on their mother’s back as she swims about the lake, clinging to her plumage when she dives and coming to the surface with her, as if nothing had happened. It is said that the mother bird turns her head and feeds the young while riding on her back. Then soon learn to dive and to feed themselves on small fish, insects, aquatic worms, and vegetable matter.
The downy young show considerable variation in color patterns, but in a general way they may be described as practically black above when first hatched, fading to blackish brown or brown as the chick increases in size; this color includes the sides crissum, leaving only the belly pure white; the head and neck broadly and clearly striped, longitudinally, with black and white; the chin and throat are often spotted with black but are some are sometimes clear white. There is usually a distinct white V on the top of e head, starting on the forehead, above a superciliary black stripe which usually includes the eyes, and terminating in a broad white stripes in the sides of the neck; there is also a median white stripe or spot on the crown and the back is, more or less distinctly, marked with four long stripes of dull white or grayish. The lighter stripes, especially on the head and neck are often tinged with buffy pink. This downy covering is worn until the young bird is more two-thirds grown, the colors becoming duller above and grayer below. The first real plumage is acquired early in September, dark above and white below, as in the adult, but signs of youth are retained in the head and neck, both of which are more or less striped with black and white on the sides; the neck is also more or less rufous. I have a specimen in this plumage taken November 15, but have other specimens taken in November and December, apparently young birds, which have lost all traces of the stripes and the rufous neck. The stripes always disappear during the fall or early winter, but the reddish neck is often retained until the young bird acquires its first nuptial plumage. This closely resembles the adult nuptial plumage but the colors are duller and not so pure; the chin and throat are whiter, the red of the neck is mottled with dusky, the wn is browner, fading gradually into the mottled cheeks; the sharply defined color pattern of the head, so conspicuous in the adult, is very much obscured in the young birds. At the first post nuptial molt, when the bird is a little more than a year old, I tnink that old and young birds become indistinguishable, although am not sure that another year is not required to accomplish this. The postnuptial or summer moult is complete and is prolonged through August and September. The adult fall plumage is characterized mainly by the absence of red which entirely disappears from the neck and breast and is replaced by a white breast and a dusky neck; the pale gray of the chin, throat, and cheeks is sharply defined against the dusky neck, as it is against the red neck in the spring; young birds have no such sharp line of demarcation; the crown is also darker than in young birds. I have seen one specimen, No. 15994 in the collection of Dr. Jonathan Dwight, in nearly full nuptial plumage, collected November 25, but I can only regard this as an exceptional case of retarded or suspended moult. A partial prenuptial moult occurs early in the spring involving mainly the plumage of the head and neck and producing the clearly defined black crown, gray cheeks, chin and throat and the brilliant red neck and breast of the nuptial plumage. I have seen specimens in which this moult was complete before the end of February and others in full winter plumage in March; I think the moult usually occurs in April.
Holboell’s grebe feeds to some extent on small fish or minnows which it obtains by diving, but its food consists largely of other things and it can live perfectly well in lakes where there are no fish at all. In the lakes of Manitoba it lives largely on crawfish, amblystomae, and aquatic insects; its bill of fare also includes various aquatic worms, insects, and their larvae, small crustaceans, fresh water mollusks, tadpoles, and some vegetable substances. An adult bird caught on the ice near my home was fed on small live shiners which it ate readily.
Mr. Robert J. Sim (1904), who made a careful study of a captive Holboell’s grebe, gives the following account of its feeding habits:
“On the second day I placed a 4-inch wild fish (shiner1) in a dish filled with water. This was set on .the floor in front of the bird. He gave the fish a slight poke whereupon it swam around violently. Making a quick thrust he caught it, grasping it crosswise with the bill-not impalling it. The fish then went through a course of pinching from head to tail, being hitched along from side to side in the bill. It was then turned about and gulped down head first. Later in the day three out of four strips of raw whitefish were eaten, each about the size of a man’s finger. These the grebe bruised and shook until small fragments flew several feet around. At this time of the year live food was scarce, but we succeeded in finding a few small aquatic animals. By the 27th of February the grebe had eaten-all voluntarily-the following: 10 live goldfish (2 to 5 inches long), 2 pieces raw steak (taken from water), 1 4-inch wild fish, 2 large tadpoles, and 7 medium sized dragon-fly larve.
In swallowing the large goldfishes the bird’s jaws seemed to be distended laterally, and he gulped so violently that the back of his head struck his back with a hollow ” tunking” sound. This operation apparently jarred the fish past the sticking point. When very hungry the grebe swallowed the fishes alive. Of the crawfishes offered him only the small or soft ones were eaten, and no great relish was shown. Earthworms, when their season came, were eaten with avidity, but raw beefsteak (lean) was the principal article of diet with the bird during his stay with us.”
The stomach of this bird is sometimes wholly or partially filled with feathers.
In flight Holboell’s grebe is easily recognized in any plumage; its size is distinctive, being halfway between a loon and one of the smaller grebes; in the full nuptial plumage the red neck and gray cheeks are conspicuous if the bird is near enough to see them, or at a greater distance the pure white under parts and white wing patches show up in marked contrast to the black upper parts; young birds in the autumn can be recognized by their size, shape, and white wing patches, as the horned grebes are much smaller and the loons have no white in the wings. Its general appearance is decidedly loon-like, with its long neck stretched out in front and its large feet held together straight out behind to serve as a rudder for a tailless bird. It can not rise off the ground or ice at all and is frequently caught in consequence. It can rise readily from the water, like a duck, but not without considerable pattering along the surface, beating it with wings and feet. When well under way its flight is swift, strong, direct, and well sustained. When migrating along the Atlantic coast I have always seen it flying singly and not more than a few feet above the water.
It is a strong and rapid swimmer and like all of its tribe a splendid diver. It usually prefers to escape by swimming rapidly away if the enemy is not too near, but, in the latter case, it dives like a flash, so quickly that it is useless to try to shoot one if it is watching. When undisturbed and not hurried it makes a graceful curving plunge, leaving the water entirely and going straight down with its wings closed; probably it can dive to a greater depth in this way than in any other. It can also sink gradually downward until only its head is above water or go swimming off among the reeds with only its bill and eyes showing. When really alarmed it goes under water with astonishing rapidity, so quickly that we can not see how it is done, but it is probably accomplished by a sudden kick and forward dive.
Mr. Aretas A. Saunders writes me that he watched a pair of these birds- diving and evidently feeding under water. I timed them to see how long they stayed under, and, after several observations of both birds, found the time to be almost uniformly 55 seconds in every case. The time was so exact that I could tell when a bird dove just when to expect it to reappear.
Mr. Sim (1904), in describing the habits of his captive bird, says:
“In ordinary swimming the feet struck out alternately. The tarsi extended downward and outward. In diving the bird was not observed to spring for ward in the common grebe manner, but rather let himself down very quickly as though drawing his head back through a hole. When it was below the surface I could scarcely realize that the creature before me was a bird, so slender was he and so swiftly did he dart about and shoot through the tangle of aquatic vegetation. It was amazing. The wings were entirely covered by the feathers and the feet struck out simultaneously at the sides, far astern. Their movements could scarcely’ be followed.
Mr. Alvin R. Cahn (1912), who had an excellent opportunity to study this species at close range through an opening in the ice of Cayuga Lake, describes its movements under water as follows:
“The water was clear, and the bird could be seen plainly, shooting and zig-zagging about, midway between the surface and the bottom. While swimming under water, the neck is extended to Its utmost, and both legs and wings are used. With neck outstretched, the bird offers the least possible resistance to the water, there being a smooth and gradual transition from the tip of the slender bill to the middle of the back, the widest part of the body. The speed which it developed under water is marvelous, at times it being almost impossible to follow Its movements, which were so rapid that the bird appeared more like a large, gray fish darting about. When coming to the surface the bill and head appeared slowly, when a glimpse of the observer caused It to dive again. In diving, even though the body was under water, the bill went down first, so that it really dove instead of sinking quietly.”
On its breeding grounds, Holboell’s grebe is often seen swimming about in pairs in marshy ponds or on the lakes. When undisturbed it swims quite buoyantly with its head drawn down on its folded neck, much as a duck swims, occasionally rolling over on its side to wash and preen its plumage or pointing its bill up in the air to give its loud weird call. But on the slightest scent of danger it sinks until its tail is below the surface, its back is awash, and its head is stretched up to watch and listen as it swims rapidly away. Should a human being approach within a hundred yards of the shy creature, it is gone for good; if on a large lake, it swims quickly away under water and appears again only in the dim distance; if near a marsh, it seeks shelter in the reeds and does not show itself again. Human intimacy is not encouraged by this vanishing water sprite.
One beautiful moonlight night in June, as we lay at anchor near some Manitoba marshes, I had a good chance to study the love song of this interesting bird. The night was calm and the mosquitoes made sleep impossible, as we lay rolled in our blankets on the deck of our little boat, listening to the varied voices of the marsh. The activities of life in the marshes do not wholly cease at sundown; birds are very active and noisy during the hours of twilight or all night long when there is bright moonlight; even on dark nights hardly an hour passes without some vocal signs of life. This night seemed particularly favorable, quiet and cool after a long hot day. The Franklin’s gulls and black terns which were feeding over the marshes in the cool of the evening kept up their restless beating long after it seemed possible for them to see their insect prey. The chattering of bronzed grackles and Brewer’s and red-winged blackbirds, as well as the rhythmic chants of the yellowheads quieted down at dusk; but their notes were frequently heard all through the night as the birds awoke to change their positions on their insecure roosts in the reeds. The long rolling diminuendo call of the sora rails and the horse gutteral croaks and grunts of the coots, with many variations, furnished the necessary accompaniment to the chorus. But the real striking features of the concert, the solo parts, were the weird cries of the Holbcell’s grebes, heard only at infrequent intervals. The performance begins with. a series of loon-like wailing cries, loud and piercing at first, and then runs off into a series of short, plaintive, vibrating wails, “ah-ooo, ah-ooo, ah-ooo, ah-ah-ah ah-ah;” sometimes it ends in a more staccato, chattering trill and might be indicated thus: “whaaa, whaaa, whaaa, whaaa, whaaa, chitter-r-r-r-r-r-r.” There is considerable variation in the length and form of the song in different individuals. The love song of the Holboell’s grebe may be heard at any time during the day or night, but it is indulged in more freely in the early morning and toward the dusk of evening.
Mrs. Lizzie T. Burt described the notes of an adult bird, which was captured on the ice near my home on February 14, 1913, as loud trumpetings, suggesting the cries of the loon and resembling the sound made by what is known as a Gabriel’s horn on an automobile. This grebe has several other notes, one of which is aptly described by Mr. Silloway (1902), as follows:
“It is a coarse, prolonged nasal quonk, the nasal quality being most pronounced, the intonation being very suggestive of the braying of a donkey. Indeed, the natives call this grebe the “jack driver,” and anyone familiar with the nasal volume of tone produced by Holbcell’s will readily admit the appropriateness of the popular name.”
Mr. W. L. Dawson (1909) refers to its notes as follows:
“Owing to the furtive habits of the various swamp dwellers, It is often diffi cult to distinguish notes, but I have attributed a harshly raucous cawack, aunoack caawwrrack heard in June upon the Pend d’Oreille River to this species. It is generally similar to the yark of the horned grebe but has several times the volume.”
Mr. Allan Brooks (1903) says that in British Columbia, where both species are abundant, the Holboell’s grebe “wages incessant war upon” the horned grebe, “the large birds diving and coming up beneath the smaller ones time and again to the terror of the poor little fellows, who often desert their nests in consequence.” It must be a formidable foe with such a sharp and powerful beak. When once it has passed the downy young stage it must be well able to defend itself and escape from its enemies.
During the migrations I have always found this grebe to be a solitary species, but, according to others, it seems to be more or less gregarious at times. Mr. John Macoun (1909) speaks of “large flocks seen on Prince Edward Island, August 7, 1888.” On the Pacific coast it more often congregates in flocks on the migrations and during the winter, though I doubt if it actually flies in flocks. In its winter quarters on the coast of Washington Mr. W. L. Dawson (1909) associates this species with the “characteristic bird population which stretches along at just a little more than gunshot range from shore,” when he finds it “almost invariably numbered with this shifting, distrustful company of sea fowl, pigeon guillemots, buffleheads, mergansers, and scoters.’
All through the fall, winter, and spring these grebes are fairly common on the New England coast, where they may be seen riding the waves just off shore, feeding in the shoals just beyond the breakers, in company with loons, horned grebes, golden-eyes, scoters, and red-breasted mergansers. It is interesting to watch them with a powerful glass as they dive through the breakers, where their movements can sometimes be plainly seen through the face of an incoming wave.
As Holboell’s grebe is inclined to winter somewhat in large inland lakes, it is sometimes caught by the freezing of lakes which are usually open. Mr. Alvin R. Cahn (1912) has published the following account of his experience with it on Cayuga Lake, New York, in February, 1912:
“The freezing of Cayuga Lake offered a rare opportunity for a study of this most interesting and apparently little known bird. Until the present time, the Holboell’s grebe has been considered only a rare visitant at the southern end of the lake, one or two being recorded almost every winter. It has proved, however, to be the predominant grebe during this winter, 28 Individuals having been taken. The reason of Its unprecedented abundance here ls undoubtedly to be found in the six weeks of extremely cold weather, and the consequent closure of waters in other regions.,The sudden closing of the lake’s surface in one night left these birds in an absolutely helpless condition, since open water is a necessity for taking flight in this group of birds, Holboell’s grebe being no exception to the rule. As a result, 11 beautiful specimens were picked up alive from the ice in perfectly good physical condition. If approached while sitting on the ice, these birds made no attempt to escape. They would strike at the outstretched hand, and would emit calls very loon-like in general quality. Once the bird alights upon the ice, it is unable to take flight, and must await starvation or other tragic end. At best, all It can do is to flap Its wings and possibly scrape along over the ice a few feet. The position of the legs, together with the smooth surface of the ice, rendered these efforts at locomotion entirely futile.”
A bird (referred to above) was caught on the ice near Taunton, Massachusetts, on February 14, 1913; it would undoubtedly have starved to death, as it was unable to rise off the ice. On December 27, 1909, a bird was brought to me which was caught in a yard in the city of Taunton, having been bewildered by a thick snowstorm and become exhausted. There are numerous other similar records.
-North Dakota and Minnesota: 23 records, May 23 to July 16; 12 records, May 31to June 13. Manitoba: 17 records, May 27 to August 1; 8 records, June 2 to 11. British Columbia and Washington: 9 records, May 13 to July 1; 5 records, May 29 to June 13. Alberta: 8 records, May 24 to June 21; 4 records, June 3 to 17.