There are several species of birds in the genus Podiceps in the family Podicipedidae of birds with their feet (and legs) situated further to the rear of their body than birds in other families. They are all commonly known as Grebes. Their feet have three separate toes, unlike the webbed feet of dabbling ducks. However, their toes have lobes that flatten out and fold inwards as they paddle their feet backwards and forwards - this enables their movement through water, especially underwater, to be efficient and agile.
Many of the species in the genus were hunted for their plumage (known as 'grebe fur'), so their populations decreased dramatically. Some populations have recovered in recent years, while others have declined because of factors such as pollution and loss of habitats for breeding. Most are classed as Least Concern on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List (IUCN) but others are more vulnerable. One species, the Colombian Grebe (Podiceps andinus), was last seen in 1977 and in 1994 it was confirmed as extinct.
Members of the genus have much in common, although there are also differences in where they live and what they eat. Males and females are similar in appearance, they moult after breeding, and their winter plumage is less colourful than their summer plumage. They build floating nests in shallow water. They perform elaborate courtship dances. Displays might include synchronised swimming, sometimes with ribbons of water weed. They also may face each other, shake their heads, and rise up out of the water, using their rear-set legs to stand tall. Both parents take turn incubating the eggs and feeding the chicks. The chicks can swim before they learn to fly, but also get around by riding on their parents' backs.
The Black-necked Grebe (Podiceps nigricollis) can be found in North America, and parts of Europe, Asia and Africa. As its name suggests, its neck is black. It also has a black head with yellow-orange plumes around its red eyes during the breeding season (at other times its neck is black and white). After breeding, they migrate from their shallow nesting grounds to salt lakes or sea inlets. They eat a variety of things including aquatic insects, dragonflies and damselflies, shrimps, snails, tadpoles and small fish. Predators such as mink are a particular threat to these birds.
Great Crested Grebe
The Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus) can be found in parts of Europe, Asia, Africa and Australasia. They are named for the black plumes on their head that they raise during courtship dances. They also have an orange frill around their face during the breeding season (at other times their head plumage is white with a black cap). They mainly eat aquatic insects during the breeding season, and mainly eat fish at other times, but also eat crustaceans and amphibians. The oldest Great Crested Grebe known to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) was 19 years old.
As its name suggests, the Red-necked Grebe (Podiceps grisegena) has red-brown plumage on its neck during its breeding season (at other times its neck is grey and white). Birds of this species can be found around the northern hemisphere, from the USA to China via Europe. They mainly eat aquatic insects in summer, and mainly eat fish in winter. They migrate south in cold weather to find non-frozen water to feed in.
The Horned Grebe, or Slavonian Grebe (Podiceps auritus) is named for the bright orange horn-like plumage that it develops during the breeding season. Its range is similar to that of the Red-necked Grebe, but it is classed as Vulnerable as its population has declined in recent years because of human disturbances to its breeding habitats, including turning lakes into fishing grounds. Like its cousin, it eats aquatic insects and fish, but can also catch flying insects. In colder months, these birds migrate relatively short distances to coastal areas with temperatures above freezing.
The Hooded Grebe (Podiceps gallardoi) is named for the black feathers on its head that look like a hood. This species is classed as Critically Endangered as there are fewer than 1,000 adult birds in the wild and they are found only in Argentina and Chile in South America. They breed in the Patagonian Steppe (an area of treeless plains) and migrate to the coast in winter. Conservation efforts are helping to stabilise their population numbers, but they are still at risk as their breeding success rate is very low (on average a pair raises one chick every two to three years).
The Southern Silvery Grebe (Podiceps occipitalis) and the Northern Silvery Grebe (Podiceps juninenis) have dark grey plumage on their heads and backs that is streaked with silver. Originally thought to be subspecies, the two types have been classified by the IUCN as separate species since 2014. The Southern Silvery Grebe is classed as of Least Concern, as it is found in South America from Argentina and Chile to Bolivia and Paraguay. The Northern Silvery Grebe is Near Threatened, as it is found only in the north west of South America around the Andes mountains.
Great Grebes are the largest of the genus, being similar in size to an Egyptian Goose. The Great Grebe (Podiceps major) occupies a similar area in South America to that of the Silvery Grebes. It mainly eats fish, but will also eat aquatic insects, crustaceans and even the chicks of wading birds such as coots.
The Junin Grebe (Podiceps taczanowskii) is Endangered as it is found only around Lake Junin in Peru and there are estimated to be fewer than 500 adult birds left in the wild. They eat aquatic insects but their main diet is Orestias fish, which can be limited in dry weather.
Females of this species generally lay no more than two eggs each year, so it may be some time before conservation efforts lead to an increase in the population of these grebes.
There are other birds in the Podicipedidae family with 'grebe' in their names, but they are not members of the Podiceps genus. For example, the Little Grebe is Tachybaptus ruficollis, the Hoary Headed Grebe is named Poliocephalus poliocephalus and the Pied-billed Grebe is Podilymbus podiceps.