There is no folk name for the song sparrow. Most people don't know the bird, and don't really care.

Pied-billed grebes, however, are much better known, to the point where they have several names assigned by people who know the birds sans technicalities like proper names.

My father called pied-billed grebes "hell divers." The birds sure can dive; I think the prefix was added for emphasis. He knew them because when he was a child, his backyard bordered a lake, because he often fished, because he had a lake cabin, because he was observant. One or more of the above reasons is why the bird is probably known to anyone who knows lakes, fishing or hunting.

Pied-billed grebes, the smallest of six grebe species found in Minnesota, are most often found in quiet water with emergent vegetation. They mind their own business, disappearing when you pay too much attention.

The grebes my grandson Cole and I saw in mid-August were on Phantom Lake in the Crex Meadows Wildlife Area near Grantsburg, Wis. Phantom is shallow and weedy.

Pied-billed grebes avoid threats by diving. Sometimes it's a simple bill-first effort, as a loon or duck dives. Other times the grebes compress body feathers to squeeze out air, then simply sink out of sight.

I've watched them sink up to their ears (you cannot see their ears), then sit and wait for the next move, theirs or mine.

Other folk names assigned to these grebes are dabchick, devil-diver, dive-dapper and water witch. Perhaps the latter has to do with the bird's ability to disappear, via that quick dive, followed by a long swim to protective water plants. The birds can remain submerged for 30 seconds or more.

Pied means having two or more colors. The bill on these birds, when they're mature, has a distinct black mark at its midpoint. If you can see the bird, you can know what it is.

Our first drive-by on the Phantom Lake road found maybe a dozen grebes scattered too far off shore for decent photos. (Cole and I do most of our birding with cameras.) Our second pass, hours later, found family groups tight to shore. There were four chicks in one family, three in another. Chicks are striking little birds with distinct striped faces.

Cole asked me what these grebes eat. Never bothering with the question myself, I told him plants. Wrong. Turns out they eat crayfish, fish, leeches and insects. How do you swallow a crayfish with its two large pincers? Grebes vigorously shake the thing until the claws fly off. Then, tail first, down it goes.

Grebes pluck and swallow their own feathers, the fuzzy ones on their flanks. The feathers provide bulk for the fish-bone pellets they cough up.

Pied-billed grebes are aggressive. They'll chase larger birds out of their territories. They dive and come up under intruders, pulling at feathers. Alert waterbirds keep their distance.

I've seen a grebe fly only when it was being aggressive, flight an effort requiring a hard run across the water. That's common to loons and grebes. They migrate in the dark, at first light landing in the nearest available pond or lake.

These small water birds are common throughout North America. My usual observation on bird conservation is applicable here: The major threat to this species in North America is loss of both breeding and wintering habitat. Some habitat is disappearing, some of it is disturbed by our use.

They can't dive fast enough to avoid that.

Lifelong birder Jim Williams can be reached at Join his conversation about birds at