Bird of the Month: Horned Grebe
By Hugh Jennings
Scientific Name: Podiceps auritus
Length 14 in
Wingspan 18 in
Weight 1 lb
AOU Band code HOGR
The Horned Grebe (HOGR) is about 14” long with a wingspan of 18” and weight is 1 lb. (450 g). The genus name Podiceps (POD-ih-seps) is from Greek pous, podos, meaning foot, referring to the placement of the legs extremely far back on the body. The species name auritus (aw-REE-tus) is Latin for eared, in allusion to its “horns”, or tufts of ear feathers. The HOGR is slightly larger and heavier than the Eared Grebe, with thicker neck, relatively larger, flat-topped head and straight bill. It is a small diver found mostly on northern marshes in summer, coastal bays in winter.
In WA state it is a common winter resident west of the Cascades, occurring singly, or in small groups, on protected marine waters and uncommon to fairly common on Columbia River reservoirs in winter. Uncommon summer resident in eastern WA, nests rarely in Okanogan and Northeast part of state. The HOGR usually migrate singly, by day along the coast and at night over land.
This grebe is duck-like with a small, straight black bill tipped with white in summer. In nesting plumage the head is black with golden ear tufts which extend from brilliant scarlet eyes to back of neck, fore neck and flanks are reddish, and this bird rides high in the water. In winter, it is mostly dark above and white below, with black cap contrasting with clear white cheeks and neck. The black on the nape narrows to a thin stripe. It flies directly, as do all grebes, and inflight with its neck and legs stretched to full extent resembles a small loon. Inflight the wings vibrate very rapidly and show a white patch at its shoulders.
The HOGR’s diet is mostly insects, crustaceans, and fish varying with habitat and season. In summer, it may eat mostly insects and crustaceans, while in the winter it may eat mostly fish. Like other grebes it swallows many feathers.
In winter this bird is often seen alone or in small flocks just outside the breaking waves, where it feeds. It tends to jump forward before diving down into the water. It forages by diving from the surface and swimming underwater, propelled by its feet. It also will take items from on or above the water’s surface. It usually is solitary in feeding, but has also been seen foraging with Surf Scoters.
Courtship displays involve posturing by both sexes. Both rise to a vertical position on the water with head feathers fully raised, turning heads rapidly. Both dive and come up with bits of week in bills, then rush across the water surface side by side carrying weeds.
The nest is in shallow water among marsh growth and is built by both sexes. It is a floating heap of wet plant material usually anchored to standing vegetation. There are usually 3-7 whitish to very pale green or buff eggs that become nest-stained with time. Incubation is 22-25 days by both sexes. The young can swim shortly after hatching and are fed by both parents, and often ride on a parent’s back. The age at first flight is 55-60 days. There usually is one brood per year, but sometimes two. When there are two broods, the young from the first brood may help feed the second.