Species Spotlight: Horned Grebe
Common name: Horned Grebe
Latin name: Podiceps auritus
Status under SARA: Special Concern; Quebec’s Magdalen Islands population is Endangered
Range: Yukon, Northwest Territories, British Columbia, and into Manitoba, Ontario and the Magdalen Islands in Quebec
Population Estimate:100,000 in North America; Magdalen Islands population likely less than 50 breeders
Size: On average, a length of 31-38 cm, weighing 300-570 g, with a wingspan of 55-64 cm
- While at rest or sleeping, the Horned Grebe will place its neck onto its back with its head off to one side while facing forward.
- At rest, it keeps one of its feet tucked in under one wing while using the other to maneuver itself in the water, creating the appearance that the bird is floating while tilted.
- The bird eats its own feathers on a regular basis, so much so that its stomach contains matted plugs which have been suggested to act as a filtration device and to store food such as fish bones until digestion can occur. Parents will often feed chicks feathers in order to develop the young’s own ‘plug’ at an early age.
The Horned Grebe’s yellowish-coloured “horns,” tufts of feathers located behind the bird’s eyes, give it a very distinctive look. During its breeding season, its black and red coloured feathers give it a dramatically different look from its black and white appearance during the winter months that most bird enthusiasts in North America would normally encounter.
Nesting sites can normally be found in shallow freshwater ponds and marshes, moving to larger coastlines and bodies of water during the winter months.
The species’ range in Canada extends from the Yukon, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories into British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, and in the Magdalen Islands area in Quebec where a small breeding population remains. Around 92% of the bird’s population in North America can be found in Canada’s wetland areas.
Their diet consists mostly of water-dwelling insects, fish, various crustaceans and other assorted small water creatures.
Clutch sizes usually consist of three to eight eggs, with a white, brown or bluish-green tint to them. Hatchlings will frequently ride on the backs of adults while swimming, and will also hang on while parents dive underwater. The bird breeds monogamously, and is very territorial, usually nesting alone and occasionally in small colonies.
What is Being Done
Because over 90% of this bird’s breeding grounds are within Western Canadian wetlands, the continued destruction of marshes and waterways is a major threat to the survival of this species. In the West, the species has gone through both long-term and short-term declines, caused by factors such as breeding habitat loss, droughts, the increase of nest predators, and environmental pollution caused by events such as oil spills.
Boreal wetlands where the Horned Grebe breeds are threatened by industrial development. Nature Canada is among several conservation groups who have endorsed the Boreal Conservation Framework, an alliance of conservation groups, First Nations, and leading Canadian companies. As a member of the Framework, Nature Canada is committed to this national vision and to taking action on behalf of our members to protect the Boreal. The Framework calls for protecting at least 50% of the region in a network of large interconnected protected areas, and supporting sustainable communities, world-leading ecosystem-based resource management practices, and state-of-the-art stewardship practices in the remaining landscape.
The small breeding population located in Quebec’s Magdalen Islands has existed for at least a century, making recent declines to its numbers, which may be as small as 15 adults on average, particularly troubling.
Three of the Important Bird Areas (IBAs) in Quebec’s Magdalen Islands support the Horned Grebe. Nature Canada works to identify IBAs across the country, determine the protection and stewardship required for each site, and ensure their conservation through partnerships with local stakeholders. Thousands of volunteers have helped conserve Important Bird Areas by surveying bird populations, building nest boxes, erecting signs, removing invasive species, planting native grasses, and promoting awareness of the value of wildlife.
Knowledge of this species’ population numbers in North America is still in its infancy. The bird’s tendency to breed in low densities, and to occupy a wide territory during its breeding season, makes calculation very difficult.
What You Can Do
- Tell elected officials that you support the protection of at least half of Canada’s Boreal forest.
- Advocate for greater protection of Important Bird Areas in your community and across the country.
- Learn more about IBAs.
- Stay informed about endangered birds and other species by signing up to Nature Canada’s monthly e-newsletter (sign up below).
Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, May 2009 Press Release
Canadian Species at Risk Public Registry “Species Profile”
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, The Birds of North America Online
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds
Thanks to Nature Canada volunteer Michael Berrigan for contributing this profile.