First published November 1, 2015... Contact Hart at

Pied-billed Grebes, such as the adult and chick here, deserve more attention than they get. (Photo 8)

No Respect

Eared Grebe (1)

Horned Grebe (2)

Horned Grebe (3)

The comedian, Rodney Dangerfield, created a career by claiming he got no respect. He had a long list of one line self-deprecating examples to explain his claim, “I looked up my family tree and found that I was the sap,” or “On Halloween, when I open the door for trick or treaters, they give me all their candy and run.”

Sometimes in nature there are common every day organisms that get no respect: think poison ivy, most snakes, or groundhogs. With birds, one candidate is the Pied-billed Grebe. How often have we heard on a field trip the offhand comment, “Oh, it’s just another Pied-billed Grebe” and then hurried off to find a more spectacular bird. Actually, almost any bird is regarded as “more spectacular.” The poor Pied-billed Grebe gets no respect.

The rock star of grebes is the Western Grebe. If you doubt me, check out this video; (make sure your sound is on, and go full screen): But Western Grebes or their close cousins, the Clark’s Grebe, are not likely to be found in Florida, and certainly the walking on water mating dance in the video can only be observed west of the Mississippi River.

When the Eared Grebe, (photo 1) another western species, showed up at Green Cay in 2007, birders came from all over the state to see it, completely disrespecting all the Pied-billed Grebes in the area. Horned Grebes are regularly found in Florida in the winter, and are usually quite exciting to find, even in their mundane winter regalia (photo 2 at  MINWR), instead of their much more striking breeding plumage, which they don on their north-bound migration (partial plumage, photo 3 at Chincoteague, VA). Perhaps it is size that makes Horned Grebes more respected, for while the Horned Grebe is smaller than ducks and coots (photo 4), the Pied-billed Grebe is smaller still. (photo 5)

But while scores of juvenile Pied-billed Grebes, without the signature black ring around the bill that gives the species its name, are found on the east coast all winter (photo 6), the adult breeding plumaged Pied-billed Grebe, with the black pied ring around the white bill and the black throat patch can be quite striking. (photo 7) Yet, that might not get the bird the respect it deserves.

One last consideration: as many juvenile and adult Pied-billed Grebes as we see in the field, it is not often that we find the very young birds that are kept well-hidden and concealed from predators. (photo 8) The very young, with their harlequin face, head and neck are quite striking, (photo 9) and I suspect if the adults sported the same appearance, birders would find them more beautiful and perhaps afford them some respect. Just think how much love we give Harlequin Ducks.

Rodney Dangerfield had one bird related one-liner: “Owls are smarter than chickens, who ever heard of a Kentucky Fried Owl?” In that manner he certainly respected owls. Perhaps birders will think more kindly of “just another Pied-billed Grebe” and remember that for a short while, in its infancy, the bird was spectacular. At least with baby Pied-billed Grebes, Rodney Dangerfield’s line about his own birth would not apply: “When I was born, I was so ugly, the doctor slapped my mother.”

For more information on how Western Grebes “walk on water,” see: For another Western Grebe mating video, see:

Coot and Horned Grebe (4)

Pied-billed Grebe and Horned Grebe (5)

Pied-billed Grebe (6)

Pied-billed Grebe (7)

Pied-billed Grebe Chick (9)




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Get all of Hart Rufe's columns from beginning to mid-2015 in Birding in a Hart Beat, a 292-page full-color large-format book