It is the only member of the genus Heliornis. The family Heliornithidae, to which it belongs, contains just two other species: the African finfoot, Podica senegalensis, and the masked finfoot Heliopais personatus, which breeds in eastern India down through southeast Asia to the Wallace Line.
These tropical birds of swamps and marshes have broad lobes on their feet, similar to grebes. These are shy birds which swim in slow-flowing streams and secluded waterways, sometimes partly submerged, like an anhinga.
The sungrebe, an aquatic bird, is typically measured to be 28–31 cm long with a weight of around 130 grams. It possesses a slimly shaped body with a tail that extends significantly beyond the body in flight. The sungrebe has predominately brown plumage with white stripes down both sides of the bird's long neck. In addition, both the throat and chin are white. It also has lobed toes that are banded a dull yellow and black and a long red bill.
The differences in appearance between males and females are minimal, but they can be distinguished based on cheek coloring. The male possesses white colored cheeks and the female is buff. An unusual trait of this bird species is the ability for males to carry the chicks within skin pouches on the underside of the wings. Due to the intensity that the male sungrebe grips these chicks, he is even capable of carrying them while flying. This adaptation isn't a mechanism adapted by any other bird species; it is completely unique to the sungrebe. While some other birds may transport while swimming, the ability to fly while carrying the chicks is much less researched and understood due to such a limited number that are capable.
The sungrebe has been frequently reported as having a mating season that begins in the middle of April during the "early wet season." Both the male and female birds take part in the nest building, which typically consists of twigs, reeds, and dried leaves. The nest is a platform placed about a meter above the water's surface in overhanging vegetation.
There are usually two to four eggs in a clutch, all with a white base color that is consistently covered in brown and pale purple spots. The eggs hatch after an unusually short incubation period of only 10 to 11 days. Both sexes share a responsibility in the incubation of the eggs; the female sits on the nest for most of the daylight hours and throughout the night, while male incubates them during the middle part of the day. Unlike their close relatives, the African and masked finfoot, the sungrebe chicks are hatched with only sparse down and poorly matured feet and bill. The chicks hatch naked, blind, and defenseless.
There is little information known about the diet of the sungrebe. Despite their vast population numbers, because of their solitary behavior it is difficult to observe them in the wild. They have been reported to eat snails and a variety of insects, and also spiders, small crabs, and small frogs and lizards. Most of their eating takes place in the water and vegetation relatively near the water.
The sungrebe is a relatively good diver and may hunt either in the water partially submerged or from low perches. As well as hunting small aquatic animals, it has been known to also feed upon plant matter found within its habitat.
Sungrebes have been reported from Argentina, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, and Venezuela. Though occasionally recorded at higher elevations, the sungrebe is usually associated with lower elevations from around 200 to 500 meters. Because of its very large population, the IUNC evaluates it as being of Least Concern. No population trend has been established, because of uncertainty over the effects of habitat modification on population size. However, the sungrebe population is not believed to be declining rapidly enough to approach the criteria that would label the species as Vulnerable. Because there is no apparent threat, the overall global population has never been exactly quantified.
- BirdLife International (2012). "Heliornis fulica". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 26 November 2013.
- Sungrebe (Heliornis fulica). (2011, May 8). Retrieved December 10, 2012, from Planet of Birds website: http://www.planetofbirds.com/gruiformes-helionithidae-sungrebe-heliornis-fulica
- Luo, M. K. (2009, October 16). Heliornis fulica (T. S. Schulenberg, Ed.). Retrieved December 10, 2012, from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology website: http://neotropical.birds.cornell.edu/portal/species/overview?p_p_spp=142196
- Sungrebe or American Finfoots. (2012). Retrieved December 10, 2012, from BeautyOfBirds (formerly Avian Web) website: http://www.beautyofbirds.com/sungrebes.html
- GrrlScientist. (2011, October 22). Mystery Bird: Sungrebe, Heliornis fulica. Retrieved December 10, 2012, from The Guardian website: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/punctuated-equilibrium/2011/oct/22/7
- "SUNGREBE & FINFOOTS Heliornithidae". Bird Families of the World. 5 April 2000. Retrieved 2 January 2017.
- Butchart, S., & Ekstrom, J. (Eds.). (2012). Sungrebe. Retrieved December 6, 2012, from BirdLife International website: http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=2802
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- Sungrebe videos, photos & sounds on the Internet Bird Collection