Cross Timbers Wildlife News
Jim Dillard, Wildlife Biologist, Texas Parks & Wildlife Department , Mineral Wells
If you spend any time at all hunting, fishing or just messing around small ponds or large lakes here in Cross Timbers Country, sooner or later you’ll encounter a helldiver. Although they probably don’t dive deep enough to justify their moniker, these small waterbirds are the Houdini of the bird world. Get too close and they’ll literally vanish right before your very eyes, leaving only a “now you see me, now you don’t” ripple on the water. They’ll usually pop back up close by a few seconds later with just their head showing above the water to make sure the coast is clear. If not, they’ll slowly sink back below the surface like a submarine and swim underwater to a safer location.
Although grebes (a.k.a helldivers) are duck-like in appearance, ducks they’re not, rather small waterbirds in the Family Podicipedidae. They’re found on all continents except Antarctica. Of the 20 species worldwide, seven can be seen in Texas but only the pied-billed grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) is a common year round resident here in Cross Timbers Country. This species is the most widespread in North America. During the winter, northern pied-bills drift southward to open waters ahead of the snow and ice. Their migration is mostly at night. If you see a grebe here in Northcentral Texas, chances are it’s a pied-billed. Other common names include dabchick, water witch and didapper.
Pied-billed grebes are adapted to a life on and under the water. Anatomically speaking, they’re built for diving with legs positioned well to the rear of their body and contained within the body skin: podiceps means “rump footed.” On land they can barely get around. Widely lobed toes provide extra propulsion underwater. Dense feathers make them waterproof and are held tight to the body when swimming underwater. Highly sought after “grebe fur” feathers were once in demand for use in making women’s hats, muffs and handbags. Somehow, they’re able to regulate their buoyancy to slip below or rise to the surface whenever they take a notion.
The short white bill is chicken-like with a black stripe during most of the year (pied means multicolored and refers to the variegated coloration of the bill.) On profile view, their head is relatively large and the body stocky. Around each brown eye is a distinct white eye-ring. Overall feather coloration is brownish-gray. Their call is a loud cuck-cuck-cuck, cow-cow-cow, cow-ah-cow-ah which surely must mean something special but only to another helldiver. Males and females look alike and average weight is 15.6 ounces.
Other than to escape predators or long-legged wildlife biologists, pied-billed grebes dive underwater in search of small fish, crustaceans, tadpoles, leeches, mollusks and some aquatic plants. About half their diet is made up of aquatic insects. Other foods include salamanders, spiders and frogs.
Pied-billed grebes are solitary and don’t prefer the company of other helldivers except during the breeding season. Once a mate is located, they’ll assemble a floating pile of vegetation for a nest site where four to seven pale blue eggs are laid. The nest is usually constructed in water deep enough so that it can be approached from underwater by the adults. That way, they can come and go from their nest without arousing the attention of predators. Eggs often become stained brownish from the damp, decaying materials in the nest. When eggs are not being incubated, they’re covered with vegetation until the birds return. Both parents help incubate the eggs for about 23 days and then feed the young a diet of aquatic cuisine. Although the black and white striped babies can swim soon after hatching, they’ll often climb on mom’s back for a rumble-seat ride, even holding on during underwater dives. First flight is at 35-37 days. One or two broods per year may be raised.
Pied-billed grebes often eat their own feathers and also feed them to their young. Although it’s not known for sure why they do this, feathers are thought to help protect their stomach in the digestion of sharp fish bones or other hard to digest food items. I guess this is just another one of those questions we’ll have for the Man upstairs someday.
During World War II, several U.S. Navy squadrons flew the Curtis SB2C dive-bomber nicknamed the Helldiver. Some pilots called them The Beast, others the S.O.B Second Class because of the airplane’s poor handling, stability and overall performance. Over 7,000 were built and effectively used against enemy shipping and bases in the Pacific Theater of battle. Many of these planes and their pilots were lost during the war. Today, only one flying plane remains in the Confederate Air Force.
Fortunately, our Cross Timbers Country helldivers are flourishing due to Mother Nature’s perfect design. All we have to do is just provide their habitat by keeping water on the landscape. Until next time, I’ll see you down a Cross Timbers Country road and God Bless America!