Two of Minnesota’s lesser-known water birds are grebes, including the red-necked grebe and the western grebe. Grebes eat fish, mostly minnows. They’re smaller than a loon and have the profile of a loon, except that the western grebe has a more slender body, with a long, slender black and white neck, a bushy black cap and a slender yellowish bill. Red-necked grebes have a rusty-red neck, a black cap, a dark brown back and a thick pointed bill.
The red-necked grebe nests in lakes of western and northern Minnesota. Its presence on a northern lake is an indicator of high-quality shoreline habitat. Nests are typically in stands of bulrush in shallow water near the shore. Sadly, many well-meaning lakeshore owners mistake the native emergent plants for weeds and remove them, destroying habitat for grebes. Red-necked grebe populations have declined in the last several decades.
The western grebe nests in only a few large lakes of west-central Minnesota. It typically nests along the edges of cattail stands.
Grebes lay three to four eggs at a time and incubate them for 24 to 28 days. After hatching, the chicks ride on their parents’ backs. Red-necked grebe chicks are striped black and white, like little zebras, and young western grebes are light gray.
Tucked under the scapular feathers arching over the parent’s back, the chicks travel “piggyback” for two to three weeks until they don’t fit anymore. One parent typically carries the chicks while the other parent catches insect larvae and minnows to feed the young. Western grebe chicks have a bald spot on top of their heads that turns from yellow to red when they are hungry so the parents know which chicks need feeding.
Carrol Henderson is the DNR’s nongame wildlife program supervisor.