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Black-necked grebe

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Black-necked grebe
Black-necked Grebe Schwarzhalstaucher.jpg
Black-necked grebe, subspecies nigricollis, adult breeding plumage
Black-necked Grebe (Podiceps nigricollis), non-breeding plumage.jpg
Black necked grebe subspecies californicus, adult non-breeding plumage
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Podicipediformes
Family: Podicipedidae
Genus: Podiceps
Species: P. nigricollis
Binomial name
Podiceps nigricollis
Brehm, 1831
Black-necked Grebe-map-location-map-en.svg
Range of P. nigricollis
     Breeding        Year-round        Winter

The black-necked grebe (Podiceps nigricollis), known in North America as the eared grebe, is a member of the grebe family of water birds. It was described in 1831 by Christian Ludwig Brehm. There are currently three accepted subspecies, including the nominate subspecies. In breeding plumage, it has distinctive ochre-coloured plumage that extends behind its eye and over its ear coverts. The rest of the upperparts, including the head, neck, and breast, are coloured black to blackish brown. The flanks are tawny rufous to maroon-chestnut, and the abdomen is white. When in its non-breeding plumage, this bird greyish-black upperparts, including the top of the head and a vertical stripe on the back of the neck. The flanks are also greyish-black. The rest of the body is a white or whitish colour. The juvenile has more brown in its darker areas. The subspecies californicus can be distinguished by its usually longer bill. The other subspecies, P. n. gurneyi, can be differentiated by its greyer head and upperparts and by its smaller size. P. n. gurneyi can also be told apart by its lack of a non-breeding plumage. This species is present in parts of Africa, Eurasia, and the Americas.

The black-necked grebe uses multiple foraging techniques. Insects, which make up the majority of this bird's diet, are caught either on the surface of the water or when they are in flight. It occasionally practices foliage gleaning. To get crustaceans, molluscs, tadpoles, and small frogs and fish, this grebe dives. When moulting at saline lakes, this bird feeds mostly on brine shrimp. The black-necked grebe makes a floating cup nest on an open lake. The nest cup is covered with a disc. This nest is located both in colonies and by itself. During the breeding season, which varies depending on location, this species will lay one (sometimes two) clutch of three to four eggs. The number of eggs is sometimes larger due to conspecific brood parasitism. After a 21 day incubation period, the eggs hatch, and then the nest is deserted. After about 10 days, the parents split up the chicks between themselves. After this, the chicks become independent in about 10 days, and fledge in about three weeks.

Although it generally avoids flight, the black-necked grebe travels as far as 6,000 kilometres (3,700 mi) during migration. In addition, it becomes flightless for two months after completing a migration to reach an area where it can safely moult. During this moult, this grebe can double in weight. The migrations to reach these areas are dangerous, with thousands of birds sometimes being killed. In spite of this, it is classified as a least concern species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). It is likely that this grebe is the most numerous in the world. There are potential threats to it, like oil spills, but these are not likely to present a major risk to the overall population.


The black necked grebe was originally described in 1831 by Christian Ludwig Brehm, who gave this bird its current scientific name of Podiceps nigricollis.[2]

There are three subspecies:[3]

  • P. n. nigricollis(Brehm, CL, 1831): nominate, is found from western Europe to western Asia (wintering to the south and west), in central and eastern Asia, and in eastern Africa
  • P. n. gurneyi(Roberts, 1919): is found in southern Africa
  • P. n. californicus(Heermann, 1854): is found from southwestern Canada through the western U.S. It winters as far south as Guatemala.

The generic name, Podiceps, comes from two Latin words: podicis, meaning "vent" or "anus" and pes meaning "foot".[4] This is a reference to the attachment point of the bird's legs—at the extreme back end of its body. The specific epithet nigricollis is Latin for "black-necked": niger means "black" and collis means "neck".[5] The subspecies epithet californicus comes from "California", while gurneyi comes from the name of British ornithologist John Henry Gurney Sr.[6]

Both common names for this species refer to features visible when the bird is in its breeding plumage; in such plumage, it has an all-black neck and a spray of golden plumes on each side of its head. The name "eared grebe" is nearly a century older than the name "black-necked grebe". The latter was first used in 1912 by Ernst Hartert, in an effort to bring the common name of the species in line with its scientific name.[7] The name "eared grebe" is still used in North America to refer to this bird.[8]


Black-necked grebe, nominate subspecies, non-breeding plumage

The black-necked grebe usually measures between 28 and 34 centimetres (11 and 13 in) in length and weighs 265 to 450 grams (9.3 to 15.9 oz). The nominate subspecies in breeding plumage has the head, neck, breast, and upperparts coloured black to blackish brown, with the exception of the ochre-coloured fan of feathers extending behind the eye over the eye-coverts and sides of the nape. This eye is mostly red, with a narrow and paler yellow ring on the inner parts of the eye and an orange-yellow to pinkish-red orbital ring.[9] The thin, upturned bill,[10] on the other hand, is black, and is connected to the eye by a blackish line starting at the gape. Sometimes, the foreneck can be found to be mostly tinged brown. The upperwing is blackish to drab brown in colour and has a white patch formed by the secondaries and part of the inner primaries. The flanks are coloured tawny rufous to maroon-chestnut and have the occasional blackish fleck. The underwing and abdomen is white, with an exception to the former being the dark tertials and the mostly pale grey-brown outer primaries. The legs are a dark greenish grey. The sexes are similar.[9]

Black-necked grebe, subspecies californicus, in non-breeding plumage

In non-breeding plumage, the nominate has greyish-black upperparts, cap, nape, and hindneck, with the colour on the upper portion of the latter being contained in a vertical stripe. The dark colour of the cap reaches below the eye and can be seen, diffused, to the ear-coverts. Behind the ear-coverts on the sides of the neck, there are white ovals. The rest of the neck is grey to brownish-grey in colour and has white that varies in amount. The breast is white, and the abdomen is whitish. The flanks are coloured in a mix of blackish-grey with white flecks. The colour of the bill when not breeding differs from that of the breeding plumage, with the former being significantly more grey.[9]

The juvenile black-necked grebe is similar to the non-breeding adult. There are differences, although, including the fact that the dark areas are usually more brownish in the juvenile, with less black. The lores are often tinged pale grey, with whitish marks behind the eye. On the sides of the head and upper neck, there is a buffy or tawny tinge. The chick is downy and has a blackish-grey head with stripes and spots that are white or pale buff-grey. The throat and foreneck are largely pale. The upperparts are mostly dark grey in colour, and the abdomen is white.[9]

The subspecies californicus usually has a longer bill compared to the nominate, and has brown-grey inner primaries during the breeding season. When not breeding, the nominate has diffuse and pale lores less often than Podiceps nigricollis californicus. The other subspecies, P. n. gurneyi, is the smallest of the three subspecies, in addition to having a greyer head and upperparts. The adult of this subspecies also has, on its lesser wing-coverts, a rufous-brown tinge. It also lacks a non-breeding plumage, in addition to the tufts on the side of its head being paler.[9]

Black-necked grebe adult and juvenile


When breeding, the black-necked grebe gives a quiet "ooeek" that ascends in pitch from an already high pitch. This call is also used as a territorial call, in addition to a low and fast trill, which itself is also used during courtship. Another call is a short "puuii" or "wit". This grebe is silent when it is not breeding[9] and when it is feeding or resting.[11]

Distribution and habitat[edit]

This species breeds in vegetated areas of freshwater lakes across Europe, Asia, Africa, northern South America and the southwest and western United States.[12] The bird migrates in winter, to places such as the Palearctic and east Africa and Asia. It also winters in southern Africa, another place where it breeds. In the Americas, it winters as far south as Guatemala. When not breeding, its habitat is primarily saline lakes and coastal estuaries.[1]


This grebe is highly gregarious, usually forming large colonies when breeding and large flocks when not.[13]


Video showing a juvenile being fed, among other things

The black-necked grebe forages mainly by diving[9] from the water,[11] with dives usually lasting less than 30 seconds.[9] These dives are usually shorter in time when in more shallow water.[14] In between dives, this grebe rests for an average of 15 seconds.[15] It also forages by gleaning foliage, plucking objects off of the surface of water, having its head submerged while swimming, and sometimes capturing flying insects.[9]

This grebe eats mostly insects (both adult and larval insects) as well as crustaceans, molluscs, tadpoles, and small frogs and fish.[9] When moulting at lakes with high salinity, although, this bird feeds mostly on brine shrimp. This has the effect of the behaviour of black-necked grebes changing in response to the availability of brine shrimp; bodies of water with more shrimp have more grebes, and grebes spend more time foraging when the amount of shrimp and the water temperature decreases.[16]


This species builds its floating nest in the usually shallow water of[17] open lakes.[18] The nest itself is anchored to the lake by plants.[17] It is built by both the male and female and made out of plant matter.[19] Most of it is submerged, with the bottom of the shallow cup usually being level with the water. Above the cup, there is a flat disc.[17] This grebe nests both in colonies[19] and by itself. When it does not nest by itself, it will often nest in mixed-species colonies. Whether it nests in colonies or not has an effect on the dimensions of the nest. When the bird is not in a colony, the nest has a diameter of 28 centimetres (11 in) (although this can vary, with nests ranging from about 20 centimetres (8 in) to over 30 centimetres (12 in)) on average while nests in colonies have an average diameter of about 25.5 centimetres (10 in).[17] This grebe can commonly be found to nest near black-headed gulls,[20] a common member in the aforementioned mixed-species colonies.[17] It is suggested that sometimes, some pairs of this grebe will steward over multiple nests when in colonies.[21]

Black-necked grebes courting

Pair formation in the black-necked grebe starts during pauses in the migration to the breeding grounds. It continues through the breeding season, and sometimes occurs on the wintering grounds.[8] Courtship occurs when it arrives at the breeding lake. The displays are performed in the middle of the lake. There is no territory involved in courting; individuals used the whole area of the lake. When advertising for a mate, a black-necked grebe will approach other black-necked grebes with its body fluffed out and its neck erect. It closes its beak to perform a call, poo-eee-chk, with the last note only able to be heard when close to the bird. Courtship generally stops at the start of nesting.[22]

In the Northern Hemisphere, this bird breeds from April to August. In east Africa, the breeding season is at least from January to February, while in southern Africa, the breeding season is from October to April.[9]

The black-necked grebe is socially monogamous.[19] It practices conspecific brood parasitism (CBP), where the female lays eggs in the nest of another member of the species. The level of CBP is relatively high in this species, with just under 40% of nests being parasitized on average.[23]

This grebe lays one, but sometimes two,[9] clutch of three to four chalky greenish or bluish eggs.[19] Nests that have been parasitized, although, will have two more eggs on average, even though the amount that the host lays is about the same no matter if it has been parasitized or not.[23] The eggs, although they are not initially spotted, do get stained by the plant matter that the nest is built out of. The eggs measure 45 by 30 millimetres (1.8 by 1.2 in) on average and are incubated by both parents for about 21 days.[19] The laying date of the eggs is somewhat synchronized, with birds in small colonies having the laying dates spread out by just a few days, compared to large colonies, where the laying date is spread out over more than 10 days.[22]

After the chicks hatch, the birds will desert their nest.[19] Although the young can swim and dive during this time, they rarely do, instead staying on the parents' backs until four days after hatching.[11] After about 10 days, the parents split the chicks up, with each parent taking care of about half of the brood.[19] After this split, the chicks are independent in about 10 days,[9] and fledge in about three weeks.[19]

When disturbed while incubating, this bird usually (just under 50% of the time) partly covers its eggs with nest material when the disruption is not sudden, although a bird with an incomplete clutch usually does not attempt to cover the eggs. When the disruption is sudden, on the other hand, the black-necked grebe usually (just under 50% of the time) does not cover its eggs. This is compared to other species of grebes, which cover up their eggs when leaving the nest.[24] Predation does not usually take eggs, with most failures occurring when the chicks have hatched. A major cause of this is the chilling of the young.[11]


When breeding is over, the black-necked grebe usually partakes in a moult migration, where it migrates to bodies of water to moult.[25] Some birds, although, moult when on the breeding grounds, but most do not moult until the end of the moult migration.[26] This migration is dangerous, with hundreds and sometimes thousands of birds being killed by snowstorms when traveling to places such as Mono Lake.[27]

When it finishes its moult migration, this bird moults its remiges between August and September,[28] which makes it unable to fly. This moult is preceded by an increase in weight. During the moult, the breast muscles atrophy. When the moult is completed, this grebe continues to gain weight, often more than doubling its original weight.[25]


Black-necked grebe diving

This grebe is one of the most inefficient fliers among birds. Generally, it avoids flying at all costs and reserves long-distance flight exclusively for migration.[29] This is combined with the fact that this bird is flightless for two months of the year during its moult.[25] However, when migrating, it travels as much as 6,000 kilometres (3,700 miles) to reach prosperous areas that are exploited by few other species.[29] In flight, the shape of this grebe is like a loon. The black-necked grebe flies with a straight neck, legs trailing, and wings beating often.[11]

When diving, this bird pulls its head back and then arches it forward into the water, with the body following and springing a little. The legs only move when they are underwater. When swimming on the surface of the water, the body of this grebe is relatively high, although none of the underparts are seen. The neck is held straight up in a relaxed manner, with the bill being held forward and parallel to the water. Each of the feet perform strong alternating strokes.[11]


As of 2016, the black-necked grebe is classified as of least concern by the IUCN. The trend of the population is uncertain, as some populations are decreasing, whereas others are stable, have an uncertain trend, or are increasing. The justification for the classification of the species as of least concern is its very large population (estimated around 3.9–4.2 million individuals) combined with a large estimated extent of occurrence (about 155 million sq km (60 million sq mi)).[1] This grebe is probably the most numerous grebe in the world.[9]

Unknown biotoxins, pathogens, and the impairment of feather waterproofing can lead to hypothermia and avian cholera. Since this grebe usually winters on the coast, it is also vulnerable to oil pollution. Potential outbreaks of diseases such as erysipelas and avian botulism could also threaten this species. These and other factors, such as human disturbance, including collisions with power transmission lines, contribute to declining populations in certain areas. In the past, this species was threatened in North America by egg collecting and the millinery industry. This threat is no longer existent today. Although this is true, this grebe is hunted in the Gilan Province and northern Iran, for both commercial and recreational purposes. However, there is no evidence suggesting that these threats could result in a significant risk for the overall population.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d BirdLife International (2012). "Podiceps nigricollis". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 26 November 2013. 
  2. ^ Brehm, Christian Ludwig (1831). Handbuch der Naturgeschichte aller Vögel Deutschlands: worin nach den sorgfältigsten Untersuchungen und den genauesten Beobachtungen mehr als 900 einheimische Vögel-Gattungen ... beschrieben sind : mit 47 ... nach der Natur gezeichneten illuminirten Kupfertafeln. B.F. Voigt. p. 963. 
  3. ^ Ogilvie & Rose (2003), p. 69.
  4. ^ Ogilvie & Rose (2003), p. 98.
  5. ^ Jobling, James A (2010). The Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names. London: Christopher Helm. pp. 271, 341. ISBN 978-1-4081-2501-4. 
  6. ^ Jobling, James A. del Hoyo, Josep; Elliott, Andrew; Sargatal, Jordi; Christie, David A.; de Juana, Eduardo, eds. "Key to Scientific Names in Ornithology". Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Barcelona: Lynx Edicions. Retrieved 7 August 2017. 
  7. ^ Ogilvie & Rose (2003), pp. 102–103.
  8. ^ a b Snow, David; Perrins, Christopher M., eds. (1998). The Birds of the Western Palearctic (BWP) concise edition (2 volumes). Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 24–26. ISBN 0-19-854099-X. 
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Llimona, F.; del Hoyo, Josep; Christie, David A.; Jutglar, F.; Kirwan, G. M. (2017). del Hoyo, Josep; Elliott, Andrew; Sargatal, Jordi; Christie, David A.; de Juana, Eduardo, eds. "Black-necked Grebe (Podiceps nigricollis)". Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Barcelona: Lynx Edicions. Retrieved June 28, 2017. (Subscription required (help)). 
  10. ^ Ted Floyd (27 May 2008). Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America. HarperCollins. p. 77. ISBN 978-0-06-112040-4. 
  11. ^ a b c d e f McAllister, Nancy Mahoney (1955). Reproductive behaviour of the eared grebe, Podiceps caspicus nigricollis (Master of Arts). University of British Columbia. 
  12. ^ Herrera, Néstor; Rivera, Roberto; Ibarra Portillo, Ricardo; Rodríguez, Wilfredo (2006). "Nuevos registros para la avifauna de El Salvador" [New records for the avifauna of El Salvador] (PDF). Boletín de la Sociedad Antioqueña de Ornitología (in Spanish and English). 16 (2): 1–19. 
  13. ^ Bull, John L.; Farrand, Jr., John (1994). The National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds: Eastern region (2 ed.). Knopf. p. 344. ISBN 978-0-679-42852-7. 
  14. ^ Ladhams, D. E. (1968). "Diving times of grebes". British Birds. 61 (1): 27–30. 
  15. ^ Caudell, Joe N.; Conover, Michael R. (2006). "Behavioral and physiological responses of eared grebes (Podiceps nigricollis) to variations in brine shrimp (Artemia franciscana) densities". Western North American Naturalist. 66 (1): 12–22. 
  16. ^ Varo, Nico; Green, Andy J.; Sánchez, Marta I.; Ramo, Cristina; Gómez, Jesús; Amat, Juan A. (2011). "Behavioural and population responses to changing availability of Artemia prey by moulting black-necked grebes, Podiceps nigricollis". Hydrobiologia. 664 (1): 163–171. doi:10.1007/s10750-010-0596-x. 
  17. ^ a b c d e Bochenski, Zygmunt (1961). "Nesting biology of the black-necked grebe". Bird Study. 8 (1): 6–15. doi:10.1080/00063656109475982. 
  18. ^ Faaborg, John. "Habitat selection and territorial behavior of the small grebes of North Dakota". The Wilson Bulletin. 88 (3): 390–399. 
  19. ^ a b c d e f g h Hauber, Mark E. (1 August 2014). The Book of Eggs: A Life-Size Guide to the Eggs of Six Hundred of the World's Bird Species. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 70. ISBN 978-0-226-05781-1. 
  20. ^ Martin, Brian; Smith, Judith. "A survey of breeding black-necked grebes in the UK: 1973–2004". British Birds. 100 (6): 368–378. 
  21. ^ Broekhuysen, G. J.; Frost, P. C. H. (1968). "Nesting hehaviour of the black-necked grebe Podiceps nigricollis in Southern Africa. II: Laying, clutch size, egg size, incubation and nesting success". Ostrich. 39 (4): 242–252. doi:10.1080/00306525.1968.9634310. 
  22. ^ a b McAllister, Nancy M. (1958). "Courtship, hostile behavior, nest-establishment and egg laying in the eared grebe (Podiceps caspicus)". The Auk. 75 (3): 290–311. ISSN 0004-8038. JSTOR 4081975. doi:10.2307/4081975. 
  23. ^ a b Lyon, Bruce E.; Everding, Susanne (1996). "High frequency of conspecific brood parasitism in a colonial waterbird, the eared grebe Podiceps nigricollis". Journal of Avian Biology. 27 (3): 238. ISSN 0908-8857. doi:10.2307/3677228. 
  24. ^ Broekhuysen, G. J.; Frost, P. C. H. (1968). "Nesting hehaviour of the black-necked grebe Podiceps nigricollis (Brehm) in Southern Africa. I. The reaction of disturbed incubating birds". Bonner zoologische Beiträge. 19 (3): 350–361. 
  25. ^ a b c Jehl, Joseph (1988). Biology of the eared grebe and Wilson's phalarope in the nonbreeding season : a study of adaptations to saline lakes. Los Angeles, CA: Cooper Ornithological Society. ISBN 0-935868-39-9. 
  26. ^ Gaunt, Abbot S.; Hikida, Robert S.; Jehl, Joseph R. (1990). "Rapid atrophy and hypertrophy of an avian flight muscle". The Auk. 107 (4): 649–659. ISSN 0004-8038. doi:10.2307/4087994. 
  27. ^ Jehl, Joseph R.; Henry, Annette E.; Bond, Suzanne I. (1999). "Flying the gantlet: Population characteristics, sampling bias, and migration routes of eared grebes downed in the Utah Desert". The Auk. 116 (1): 178–183. ISSN 0004-8038. doi:10.2307/4089464. 
  28. ^ Winkler, David W.; Cooper, Scott D. (2008). "Ecology of migrant black-necked grebes Podiceps nigricollis at Mono Lake, California". Ibis. 128 (4): 483–491. ISSN 0019-1019. doi:10.1111/j.1474-919X.1986.tb02700.x. 
  29. ^ a b Jehl Jr., J.R.; Henry, A.E.; Ellis, H.I. (2003). Berthold, Peter; Gwinner, Eberhard; Sonnenschein, Edith, eds. Optimizing migration in a reluctant and inefficient flier: the eared grebe. Avian Migration. Springer. pp. 199–209. ISBN 978-3-540-43408-5. 


  • Ogilvie, Malcolm; Rose, Chris (2003). Grebes of the World. Uxbridge, UK: Bruce Coleman. ISBN 1-872842-03-8. 

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