Arthur Cleveland Bent.

Life histories of North American diving birds : order Pygopodes online

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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.




A long drive over the prairies of North Dakota brought us to the
home of our host and guide, Mr. Alfred Eastgate, in a picturesque
spot by the side of a little pond surrounded by trees and shrubbery.
It had been an eventful day. May 30, 1901, my introduction to the
fascinating bird life of the western prairies! Everything was new,
strange, and interesting, possessing that peculiar charm which a
naturalist experiences only on his first day in an entirely new region.
We had stopped several times to explore the timber belts, teeming
with small birds, and to examine nests of goldeneyes and ferruginous
roughlegs. I had made the acquaintance of at least a dozen new
birds and had learned to see other familiar species in a new light
as I met them in their summer homes on the prairies and in the
sloughs. In the little pond by the house were a pair of beautiful
horned grebes, resplendent with their full nuptial plumage and their
great fluffy heads; with them were two pairs of blue- winged teal, a
pair of shovelers, and several lesser scaup ducks; a noisy pair of
killdeers were running along the shore and several ring-billed gulls
and black terns were flying overhead. The grebes had recently ar-
rived on their breeding grounds and were busy with their courtships
and preparations for nest building; their weird and striking notes
were heard frequently all through the evening and it was a fitting
ending to such a delightful day to be lulled to sleep by the love song
of the homed grebe.

Nesting. — This pair built their nest in this little pond, but we
went away before the eggs were laid and we did not find any more



','l!i'\ I

Crane Lake, Saskatchewan.

A. C. Bent.

Crane Lake, Saskatchewan.

Horned Grebe.

A. C. Bent.

For description see paqe 233.


nests of this species that season, although they are not uncommon
in that region. The horned grebe is nowhere abundant, but it is
widely and evenly distributed all through the northern prairie re-
gions. In Saskatchewan I recorded it as uncommon in 1905 and
rare in 1906, though we found a few nests each season. I found
two nests on June 7, 1905, in the Crane Lake slough within a short
distance of the western grebe colony. The first nest was well con-
cealed in the middle of a clump of tall reeds {Soirpus lacustris) and
was floating in water about knee-deep. It was made of wet rotten
reeds and rubbish and measured 10 inches in diameter outside and
7 inches inside; it contained five eggs, which were only about 2 inches
above the water. The second nest was in a more open situation but
was similarly constructed; it contained nine eggs and was some-
what larger than the first nest, measuring 13 by 12 inches in outside

In the Magdalen Islands, in 1904, we found a few pairs of horned
grebes nesting in the small ponds near East Point, where, even as
late as June 22, the sets were incomplete or perfectly fresh. A nest,
found wth one egg in it on the 18th, now held three fresh eggs;
probably more would have been laid as the eggs were covered
and the bird was not incubating ; this would seem to indicate that an
egg is laid every other day. The nest was a floating mass of dead
and green flags, mostly the latter, mixed with soft aquatic mosses and
algae ; I could pass my hands completely under it and lift it without
materially disturbing its floating capacity; it was partially secured
from drifting by being anchored to the dead stalks of a scanty, open
growth of flags {Typha latifolia), in water about 18 inches deep.
It was in perfectly plain sight, and even conspicuous at a long dis-
tance, as were all of the nests of this species in that locality, for the
broken-down flags of last year's growth, offered little concealment;
later in the season the new growth of flags would probably have
hidden it. This nest measured 14 inches in outside diameter, but the
inner cavity was only about 4 inches in diameter. The grebes were
very tame and swam slowly away, watching us intently within gun-
shot range. I have always found this species very bold and con-
spicuous, in marked contrast to the pied-billed grebe, which is very
seldom seen near its nest. I was much impressed with the striking
beauty of a handsome male that we shot; it had the most beautiful
eye that I have ever seen in any bird, brilliant scarlet, finely veined
and penciled, with an irregular ring of yellow around the pupil,
gleaming like fire in its setting of soft velvety plumage.

The nests are made of whatever soft vegetable substances are
easily available, mixed with mud, and are usually more conspicuous
than those of the pied-billed grebe. The grebes themselves are gen-
erally much more in evidence than the dabchicks, making identifi-


cation much easier. The horned grebe covers its eggs when it leaves
them, but incubates regularly ; it is not particularly shy and has been
photographed on its nest; it is not easily driven from the vicinity
of its nest, and will soon return to it if given a good chance.

Eggs.—Th.& eggs of the horned grebe are absolutely indistinguish-
able from those of either the eared or the pied-billed grebes. In shape
they vary from " elliptical ovate " to " elliptical oval." The shell is
fairly smooth with very little luster. The ground color is dull
bluish white or pale olive white, which is generally more or less, and
often wholly, concealed by a deposit of mud and dirt or by nest
stains which will not disappear with washing. The set usually con-
sists of 4 or 5 eggs, but sometimes 3 eggs are incubated and some-
times as many as 9 or 10 are found in a nest; perhaps these large
sets are laid by more than one bird. If only one brood is raised in
a season, there is a great variation in the dates, but Dr. P. L. Hatch
(1892) has suggested that as the young "have been seen swimming
with the parent as early as the first week in May, and at the ten-
derest age as late as the 3d of August," there may be two broods
raised occasionally. The measurements of 45 eggs, in the United
States National Museum and the author's collections, average 44
by 30 millimeters ; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 47.5
by 29.5, 46 by 31.5, 40 by 29 and 43 by 28 millimeters.

Plwnages. — The downy young is almost black above, striped and
spotted with grayish white; there is a median white stripe on the
occiput and a white V on the forehead, extending down the sides of
the neck in broad irregular stripes ; the sides of the head, neck, and
throat are white tinged with " salmon buff " and spotted with dusky ;
the under parts are white and the sides dusky. The young can swim
and dive like experts soon after they are hatched. They develop
rapidly and soon acquire the juvenal or first plumage, which is worn
through the late summer and into the fall; it is similar to the first
winter plumage, but is characterized by the dusky stripes and spots
on the sides of the head and throat. These dusky markings disappear
during the fall and the young birds become similar to the adults.
Young birds in the first winter can be distinguished by the light
edgings of the feathers of the backs, by the lighter and browner
plumage in the crowns, and by the smaller or lighter colored bills;
adults have clear black crowns, the cheeks are usually purer white,
the plumage of the heads is more fluffy, and the biUs are larger and
blacker. The prenuptial molt apparently includes the entire head
and body plumage, and young birds are indistinguishable from adults
after the first spring. The spring molt usually occurs in April,
sometimes a little earlier or later, but it is usually completed before
the middle of May. Birds in full nuptial plumage have been taken



4~ ' /

' \ '> WW I

l!^ ilk»!.->




Magdalen Islands, Quebec.

A. c. "Bent.

J. M. Schreck.


For description see paqe 233.


as far south as South Carolina and they are not uncommon on the
Massachusetts coast; but even here most of the birds migrate north
before the molt is complete. The complete postnuptial molt occurs in
the later summer and early fall, but is often not completed before
October or later.

Food. — One of the horned grebe's favorite articles of food is small
fish, which it is quite expert at chasing and catching, as it darts about
swiftly and skillfully under water, catching them unawares and pur-
suing them at full speed. While living on the coast in winter it feeds
on shrimps, minute crustaceans, and salt water minnows. On inland
waters it eats a large proportion of animal food, such as small frogs,
tadpoles, aquatic lizards, leeches, beetles, and other insects. It also
feeds to some extent on grasses and other vegetable matter. Audubon
(1840) speaks of having found large quantities of grass seeds in the
stomach of this grebe. Mr. W. L. McAtee (1912) has made an ex-
haustive report on the food of this species, as follows :

The most remarkable point about the food habits of grebes is that the stom-
achs almost invariably contain a considerable mass of feathers. Feathers are
fed to the young, and there is no question that they play some essential though
unknown part in the digestive economy. As they are finely ground in the giz-
zards it Is probable that finally they are digested and the available nutriment
assimilated. Feathers constituted practically 66 per cent of the contents of the
57 horned grebe stomachs examined. However, it is not likely that they furnish
a very large percentage of the nourishment needed by the birds. ■ As the nutri-
tive value of the feathers is unknovrn, this part of the stomach contents is ig-
nored. The other items of food are assigned 100 per cent, and the percentages
are given on that basis. Various beetles, chiefly aquatic, compose 23.3 per cent
of the food ; other insects (including aquatic bugs, caddis and chironomid larvae,'
dragon-fly nymphs, etc.), nearly 12 per cent; fishes, 27.8 per cent; crawfish.
20.7 per cent ; and other Crustacea, 13.8 per cent. A little other animal matter
is taken, including snails and spiders, and a small quantity of vegetable food
was found in two stomachs.

Behavior. — The flight of the horned grebe is strong, direct, and
well-sustained; it looks, when on the wing, much like a miniature
loon. Its neck and its legs are stretched out to their full extent, fore
and aft, and its wings vibrate very rapidly. In winter it is difficult
to distinguish from the eared grebe, but it can be easily distinguished
from the pied-billed grebe by the absence of brown in its plumage
and by its white secondaries, which are very conspicuous in flight.
Its wings are small in proportion to its weight, so that it experiences
some difficulty, in rising from the water or from the ground ; in rising
it has to run along the surface for a long distance, beating the water
with both wings and feet; but, when well under way, it attains very
good speed. When migrating it usually travels singly or in small
scattered flocks. Along the New England coast we frequently see
horned grebes migrating, with the scoters in October, a mile or two
offshore; often several are in sight at one time, but I have never seen


them in anything approaching a flock. Throughout the interior,
where they are more numerous, they seem to fly in flocks. Audubon
(1840) mentions a flock of 30 which alighted near him in a pond, and
states that they migrate in flocks, flying high in the air and following
the courses of streams.

The horned grebe swims buoyantly and rapidly, using its feet alter-
nately ; it also has the power of sinking below the surface and swim-
ming with its body partially or wholly submerged and with only its
bill protruding. Coues (1877) and some other observers seem to think
that this is accomplished by so regulating its respiratory processes
that its body is increased or decreased in bulk; he cites the following
instance to illustrate it:

Once holding a wounded grebe in my hand, I observed its whole body to swell
with a labored inspiration. As the air permeated the interior, a sort of ripple
or wave passed gradually along, puffing out the belly and raising the plumage
as it advanced. With the expiration the reverse change occurred from the op-
posite direction, and the bird visibly shrunk in dimensions, the skin fitting
tightly and the feathers lying close.

I have always supposed that grebes and some other water birds
had the power of regulating their displacement, and consequently
their floating and sinking ability, by their control of their plumage,
compressing the feathers of the body to reduce the displacement and
expanding them to increase it; the above incident, cited by Coues,
seems to be open to this interpretation as well as any other.

This grebe is just as good a diver as the rest of its tribe. Mr. E.
Howard Eaton (1910) says:

I have often seen it remain under water for three minutes and cover a
distance of at least 30 rods at one drive.

Dr. Charles W. Townsend (1905) has well described its diving
power, as follows:

The diving of this grebe is often a beautiful piece of work. The bird springs
vigorously upward and forward, the bill cleaves the water on the downward
curve just as the feet leave it, while the whole body describes an arc. The
wings are closely applied to the sides, and do not flop out as in the Alcidae,
where they are used for flight under water. In the grebes the feet are the
propelling power in the forceful Initial spring and in the movements below
the water. That the wings are kept close to the sides under water I have been
able to observe when the grebes were borne up in the advancing rollers on
Ipswich Beach. The clear water before the waves broke revealed the diving
birds. The full beginning of the dive, as described above, is often curtailed in
all degrees, so that the head is below water before the feet emerge, or the jump
is lost entirely, and the bird disappears suddenly with a vigorous kick, or
mysteriously and quietly sinks in the water. The duration under water de-
pends somewhat on its depth as well as on the abundance of food there. Thus
a grebe close to the rocks stayed under from 30 to 35 seconds, while the same
bird a short distance out was under water from 45 to 50 seconds each time.
They often remain below the surface longer than this.


The love song of the horned grebe is a wonderful combination of
weird, loud, striking notes, difficult to describe, but, when once heard,
it will never be forgotten; it consists of a series of croakiag and
chattering notes, followed by several prolonged piercing shrieks;
it seems remarkable that such a volume of sound can come from so
small a bird. At other times it is usually silent. Prof. Lynds Jones
(1909) says:

When the numbers are so great that large companies are found there is a
perpetual conversational undertone decidedly pleasing in quality, accompanied
by a sort of play among the birds. ^

Mr. W. Leon Dawson (1909) says that —

they raise a curious far-sounding note of complaint, keogh keogh, with a nasal
twang or more sharply, keark keark, or even park ya/rk.

Winter. — In its winter haunts on our coasts the homed grebe is
commonly seen singly, or in small flocks, just outside the breakers
along the beaches or near the rocky shores, diving for its food,
playing about in the waves, or riding buoyantly over them ; occasion-
ally one is seen asleep with its bill tucked under its scapulars. Often
it is more gregarious, particularly on inland lakes, where sometimes
as many as 150 to 200 are seen in a flock. When alarmed the whole
flock suddenly disappears, all diving in unison. They are said to
hunt in flocks, at times, after the manner of mergansers, chasing
schools of small fry which are more easily caught in this way.
Individuals which linger too far north are sometimes caught by the
freezing of lakes and perish for lack of food.


Breeding range. — Northern parts of the northern hemisphere. In
North America east to southwestern Ungava, eastern Quebec (Mag-
dalen Islands), southwestern New Brunswick (Milltown) and east-
ern Maine (Washington County). South to southern Ontario (St.
Clair Flats formerly), southern Wisconsin (Lake Koshkonong) and
northern Nebraska (Cherry County). West to southern British Co-
lumbia (Ashcroft, Okanagan and Kamlbops) and northwestern
Alaska (lower Yukon and Norton Sound). North to central Alaska
(Yukon Eiver at Nulato and Fort Yukon), Yukon Territory (near
Herschel Island) and northern Mackenzie (60 miles southeast of
Fort Anderson and Athabaska-Mackenzie region, north nearly to
border of forest) and Keewatin (Fort Churchill). Eecorded during
summer south of the normal breeding range in Massachusetts, Con-
necticut (Melrose, July 26 ; Litchfield County, supposed to have bred
in 1906) and Indiana (Sheffield). Michigan breeding repords doubt-
ful. In the Old World the species breeds in Iceland, northern Scot-


land, northern Europe (south to Denmark and Gottland Island in
the Baltic Sea) and throughout Siberia.

Winter range. — In North America mainly within the United States
and principally on the seacoast. From central New York (Tioga
County) and coast of Maine, south to Florida (Lake Wimlico and
Amelia Island). West along the Gulf coast to Louisiana. From
southern British Columbia (Okanagan Lake and Vancouver Island)
and northwestern Washington (Bellingham Bay) to southern Cal-
ifornia (along the coast and. casually inland). Has been recorded
as wintering in the Pribilof ^nd Aleutian Islands (Unalaska) and
southeastern Alaska (Sitka). In the interior winter records are
mostly from the region of the great Lakes ; Ohio, northern Indiana,
Illinois (Lake Michigan), southern Ontario (Lake Ontario) and

Outside of North America the species winters in central and
southern Europe south to the northern coast of Africa and the Azores.
In Asia south on the coast of China and Japan to the Tropic of

Spring migration. — Northward along the Atlantic slope, during
April and early May. South Carolina : Second week in April. Dis-
trict of Columbia : Washington, April 17. New Jersey : April 14 to
23 (latest May 3). New York: Arriving March 20 to April 10, de-
parting middle of May. Connecticut: Long Island Sound, May 3
(latest). Massachusetts: May 6 (latest). Maine: Leave late in

Northward along the Pacific coast and through the Rocky Moun-
tain region. California : Santa Cruz Island, April. Oregon : Netarts
Bay, March 9 to 21. British Columbia : Elk River, April 22. Wy-
oming : May 15. Alberta : Lily Lake, May 13 ; Athabaska Landing,
May 12. Athabaska River: Fort McMurray, May 14. Yukon Ter-
ritory: Fort Reliance, May 14; Forty Mile, May 20. Southern
Alaska: Kuiu Island, April 28 (arriving) ; Prince of Wales Island,
May 10-14. Alaska: Lower Yukon at Nulato, last of May.

Northward through the interior. Kansas : April 15 to 30. Iowa :
April 19. Illinois: Chicago, April 12 to 27. Ohio: Cedar Point,
March 25 to April 21 ; Waverly, April 20 to 28. Michigan : April 12
to 23. Minnesota : April 23.

Fall migration. — Southward along both coasts and through the
interior. Ungava: Koksoak River, September 15. Maine: Arrive
September. Massachusetts: October 1 (earliest). Connecticut: Sep-
tember 12 (earliest). New York: Arrive October 10. New Jersey:
October to November. Virginia : Dismal Swamp, October 9. South
Carolina: October 25 (earliest). Florida: Hillsboro County, Octo-
ber 28. Ohio: Waverly, September 17 to October 24; Oberlin, ar-


rives October 1 to 15, departs November 25, Iowa: November 11
(latest). Kansas: September. Northern Alaska: Norton Sound,
leave the middle of October. Southeastern Alaska : Valdez Narrows,
September 18; Admiralty Island, September 24. Mackenzie: Mac-
kenzie Eiver, October 8. Yukon Territory: Forty Mile, September
20 ; Teslin Lake, October 17. Washington : Blaine, October. Oregon :
Netarts Bay, September 9. Idaho: Saw-tooth Lake, September 25
to October 4. California: Mono Lake, September 2 to 21; San
Benito County, October 14.

Casual records.— R&s been recorded from Greenland, Herschel
Island Eiver, Yukon Territory, the Bermuda Islands, and the Com-
mander Islands.

Egg dates.— Earth. Dakota: 14 records, April 6 to July 7; 8
records, June 4 to 25. Manitoba and Saskatchewan : 11 records. May
31 to July 7 ; 6 records, June 3 to 10. Alberta and British Columbia :
9 records. May 20 to July 7; 5 records, June 4 to 17. Ontario and
Quebec: 9 records. May 28 to June 27; 5 records, June 4 to 21.
Nebraska : 2 records, June 29 and August 12.




The little eared grebe is widely and evenly distributed throughout
western North America; from the Great tlains west to the Pacific
coast and in most of the inland marshy lakes it is an abundant spe-
cies. It seems to me that the name American should be retained, as
our bird is well established as, at least subspecifically, distinct from
the European eared grebe.

Courtship. — During the spring migration in May the birds are
busy with their courtships. Mr. Aretas A. Saunders writes to me
that all the birds he saw on the spring migration in Montana were
in pairs and that they are evidently mated when they arrive on their
breeding grounds. Mr. W. L. Dawson (1909) has gracefully de-
scribed their activity at this season as follows :

It has been a blading day, for June, even in the Big Bend country, but now
the sun has sunk behind the Cascades and the earth has already begun to
exhale the fresh odors of recovering darkness. Most birds have properly
tucked head under wing, and even the nighthawks are less feverish in their
exertions ; but not so veith the eared grebes. It is the magic hour of courtship,
and near and far from the open water or its weedy margins sounds the mellow
poo-eep poo-eep of these idyllic swains. The sound is given deliberately with a
gently rising inflection, but seems to vanish into silence at the end with a sort
of saber-like flourish. Now and again some Romeo, more ardent than his
mates, bursts into an excited hioko ride up, Mclco rick up, Uiclw rick up. The


birds spread freely all over the lake irrespective of their nesting haunts, and
so numerous are they that at times they maintain a chorus of the volume and
persistency of that furnished by a first-class frog pond in March.

Nesting. — ^In the shallow, marshy lakes of the western plains the
eared grebe breeds in extensive colonies, populous thickly settled
communities, which my companion, Mr. Herbert K. Job, used to call
"cities of the submerged tenth." None of the other small grebes
breeds in such large or such densely populated colonies, in which it
is often impossible to pole a canoe, or even to wade, without over-
turning the nests. Often times there are only narrow lanes of
water, through which the inhabitants may come and go to their
respective domiciles; yet they never seem to quarrel in the narrow
streets or experience any difficulty in finding their own homes. When
disturbed, by human intrusion, they slip off their nests into the
water, often without diving and swim out into the lake, where they
gather in a large flock and quietly watch proceedings. They are
always in evidence about their nesting colonies and are not nearly
as shy as the pied-billed grebes. The pied-billed grebe nests in small
scattered colonies and the horned grebe usually singly or in widely
separated nesting sites. Neither of them ever nests, so far as I know,
in dense colonies like the eared grebe. Moreover the nests of the
eared grebe are almost always in open situations, whereas the nests
of the other two species are usually more or less concealed in some
kind of vegetation. The nests of the eared grebe are also smaller
and less elaborately built than those of the pied-billed or the horned

Online LibraryArthur Cleveland BentLife histories of North American diving birds : order Pygopodes → online text (page 4 of 31)