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The horned grebe is named for the distinctive golden-yellow patches of feathers behind its eyes, which resemble short horns and are only present during the breeding season. In its breeding plumage, it has a glossy black head, a chestnut neck and flanks, a dark brown or blackish back, and a white belly. Outside of the breeding season, the horned grebe is mainly dark grayish above and white below. A dark gray crown contrasts with white cheeks that extend to the back of the neck, where the white is divided by a narrow black line. The eyes are bright scarlet, with a fine white ring around the pupil. Like other grebes, this species has large feet with lobed toes. Both sexes have similar plumage, but the male tends to be a little larger than the female. Juveniles resembl non-breeding adults, but with dark striping or mottling on the side of the head and a less distinct border between the dark crown and white cheeks.
Horned grebes average 9-1/2 inches in length, with a wingspan of 24 inches.
Distribution and Habitat
The horned grebe breeds across northern Eurasia and North America, primarily on lakes, ponds, and costal waters. It winters in the North, Adriatic, Black, and Caspian Seas, as well as along the coasts of Japan, China, and Korea, and along both coasts of the United States, as far south as California in the west and Texas in the east. It spends most of the winter on the ocean, including protected bays and exposed shores, but it has also been increasingly seen on large lakes and reservoirs.
The breeding season runs from April to August, with egg-laying usually peaking around June.
Courtship displays involve posturing by both sexes. Both rise to a vertical position on the water with head feathers fully raised, turn their heads rapidly, dive and come up with bits of weed in their bills, and then rush across the surface of the water side by side carrying the gathered weeds.
Both sexes build the nest, which is a floating heap of wet plant material (with a depression in the middle for eggs), usually anchored to standing vegetation. The 3-6 white to brownish or bluish green eggs are incubated by both parents for 22-25 days.
Horned grebe chicks can swim shortly after hatching, but must be fed by their parents for their first 14 days and often ride on the parents' backs. They become independent at 19-24 days, but are not fully fledged until 55-60 days of age.
Horned grebes feed on fish and a variety of aquatic invertebrates. They usually forage by diving from the surface and swimming underwater, propelled by their feet, but will also take items from on or above the water's surface.Horned grebes also regularly eat some of their own feathers, creating a matted plug in the stomach, and even feed feathers to their chicks. The exact reason for this behavior is unknown, but the feathers may hold fish bones in the stomach until they can be digested, help in the formation of digestive pellets, and/or help rid the grebe of intestinal parasites.
Habits and Behaviors
Horned grebes are solitary outside of the breeding season, only occasionally coming together in small flocks where food is plentiful.
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This page was last updated on February 11, 2018.