Grebes, waterbirds once almost wiped out, now thrive

Grebes are shy butterball waterbirds that are endowed with the Latin name of “podicipediformes,” suggesting “birds that run on water.”

Like its cousin, the loon, this reclusive bird of the lonesome summer wetlands is more heard than seen. Their mating calls echoing through the wetlands are relatively loud; listen for a telltale double tone that resonates over the water.

More commonly known as the dab-chicks or hell-divers, versions of the grebe, including assorted dabs, the pied-bills, red-necked, and horned-eared, have all been recorded in considerable numbers as winter visitors along North Carolina’s coast. Here they forage in shallow, fresh waters for fish and vegetation.

Nature equipped them with sharp bills designed for spearfishing, however it forgot to furnish them much of a tail and placed their legs too far aft for walking or stalking. The results show that when pressed they seek escape by running atop the water’s surface in a frantic flailing or, when endangered they seek safety by tucking their young beneath their wings, diving to considerable depths.

If any single species of bird can take credit for America’s environmental movement, it would be the grebe. Throughout the 1800s and prior to the early 1900s, market hunters slaughtered thousands of grebes destined for the milliner’s feather merchants to be used as decorations for ladies’ hats and earmuffs.

As the birds became scarce, Teddy Roosevelt pushed a waterfowl protection bill through Congress. The opponents of the bill argued the grebes were a menace: “because they stole baby fish from the fishermen.”

Today, thanks to federal waterfowl legislation, grebes are alive, thriving and still miraculously running on water.