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Little Grebe { Birds of Europe }

Updated on August 1, 2015

Little grebe with fish

Originally posted to Flickr uploaded to commons by Ariefrahman. { Photo taken in England.}
Originally posted to Flickr uploaded to commons by Ariefrahman. { Photo taken in England.} | Source


The Little Grebe often referred to as the Dabchick belongs to the order of birds known as Podicipediformes and the family Podicipedidae within that order. They have been allocated the genus name of Tachybaptus from the Greek Takhos indicating fast+ bapto indicating to sink under. The specific name is ruficollis from Latin rufus indicating reddish+ collus =neck.

In the UK they are placed on the Amber List of conservation concern due to recent population declines. There was an estimated 5,300 pairs in summer {2009}. In Ireland they are also Amber listed because of a contraction in their breeding range. In the UK they are classed as migrant/resident breeders and winter visitors. Source { BTO }

In Europe they are not a bird of conservation concern with an estimated population of between 97,000 and 164,000 pairs. The populations vary from country to country ,there follows a few examples. In Austria the population is estimated to be between 1,200-2,000 pairs, in Belgium 1,000-1,600 pairs, in Croatia 6,000-7,000 pairs, France 4,000-8,000 pairs, Germany 6,000-9,800 pairs Spain ,5,200-8,000 pairs, Turkey 13,000-20,000 pairs and Ukraine 3,500 -6,900 pairs. { Source Birdlife}.

They are birds of Marshy places, ponds and lakes. they occur throughout Eurasia with the exception of the far north. South to Malaysia, New Guinea and sub-Saharan Africa. The common name of Dabchick is the only bird name with the first three letters of the alphabet occurring in order Dabchick.

The Gaelic name for the bird is Gobhachan-allt, the Welsh Gwyach-Fach and the Irish name is Spagaire tann

Little grebe non-breeding plumage

Taken in Hylderabad India
Taken in Hylderabad India | Source

Pied billed grebe

Arizona USA
Arizona USA | Source

What are Grebes ?

Grebes are round bodied,but long necked birds which are generally widespread in Europe breeding on rivers, marshes and larger lakes. Their calls are less aand less 'wild' than the divers, being a kind of barking croak. They characteristically cover their eggs with water weed whenever they leave the nest in an effort to conceal them from predators. Grebes are the only birds associated with the Order podicipediformes, the single family of Podicipidae contains 22 species in half a dozen genera.

Grebes have narrow wings and some species are very reluctant to fly. Indeed two South American species are completely flightless. They respond to danger by diving rather than flying.

North American and Eurasian species are of necessity migratory over much of their range. In America they are represented by species such as the Pied billed grebe, Podyilymbus podiceps. These are closely related to the genus Tachybaptus to which are subject belongs.

They are all excellent divers and are very comfortable in the water. However, when on land they can appear clumpsy and ungainly. The foot of the species are placed well back on the body, not designed at all for travel on land, indeed the name podicipes indicates feet at the buttocks from podii indicating rump and pes -foot.

Grebes have a somewhat unusual plumage. It is dense and water proof and on the underside the feathers are at right angles to the skin,sticking straight out to begin with and curling at the tip. By pressing their feathers against the body, grebes can adjust their buoyancy. Often they swim low in the water with just their head and neck showing.

Here we review the smallest British species the Little Grebe and as usual we will commence with a description of the subject under review.

Little grebe and habitat

Crossley's ID Guide to Britain and Ireland  Richard Crossley
Crossley's ID Guide to Britain and Ireland Richard Crossley | Source

Description of the Little Grebe

The male weighs around six to seven ounces. The bill is black,the tip paler of a light horn colour. The upper mandible is straight, the under one angular. In winter the lower mandible is paler than the upper. The basal part of both is yellowish or yellowish white. The iris a deep reddish brown.

The head and crown,neck on the back, and nape, dark brownish-black,glossed with green, the head on the sides is chestnut red { during the winter all of them are brown }. The feathers about the head are soft and flexible and being capable of being puffed out or laid flat at the pleasure of the bird. The chin is dull black,glossy silvery greyish white,with a tint of black. On the sides dusky brown.

The back, is a rusty blackish brown, with a tinge of dullish green,shading towards the sides of the breast into a paler tint,which is continued down to the flanks in winter the back is brown, the lower part is paler than the upper. The wing span is about fourteen inches, the primaries,dark brown, in winter some of them are greyish white. The secondaries are white at the base and on the inner webs,apparent when the bird is flying. In winter they are greyish.

The legs and toes are a dull blackish green, the insides paler and with a tinge of yellowish red. They are large in size to the proportional size of the bird.

The Little grebe is less than half the weight of its nearest British allies, and not nearly so large as a Teal**

** This species has already been reviewed in this series. The Great Crested Grebe has also been reviewed.

Little grebe swimming

Kolkata Wetland West Bengal India
Kolkata Wetland West Bengal India | Source

Background and historical information

This small species ,very common in Europe,was once much more common and widely distributed throughout the British Isles,and can be encountered at all seasons of the year.Its natural home is in the water, both the open lake and village pond,the gently flowing water and the still pool, the narrow stream and at times the edge of the open sea.

In winter when the frost has shut the door on its natural larder, it takes itself off to the salt water, if within reach,and is then found in bays and the sea side pools. In the 'Zoologist'page 1601 J.H.Gurney and W.B.Fisher,relate that more than one specimen of the Little Grebe were taken about the 14th of Decemeber ,1846, in the streets of Norwhich and on the 23rd, a gentleman,who was passing about eleven at night along the Street.was surprised by a bird of this species suddenly striking against the wall near a gas lamp,which was above him,and " immediately after falling upon his head"

The grebe is naturally shy,but becomes accustomed to the sight of passers by the water it inhabits,and its quick movements in diving may be watched not far off with little disturbance of its proceedings. They occasionally enter the sea close to the shore in those places where thier accustomed haunts are adjacent to it.

The Dabchick like any other diving birds has the ability to keep its body low down in the water,and submerging itself if need be,and diving to some distance,when it suddenly rises as it went down,and with a shake of its head urges itself on its way. It is able to submerge itself for a considerable time to avoid danger or it will conceal itself among the tangled water places which is its natural habitat.

Courtesy of bellamoonnature { Standard You Tube License} Music by Shirley Cason. Filmed on lakes in coastal S.E. Queensland Australia

Nest and Eggs

According to Morris { 1867} the nest of the dabchick is placed at a little distance from the water often as much as 20-30 yards,on or among the plants that grow near the side of streams of rivers, lakes and ponds. It is generally composed of short pieces of roots,reeds,rushes and flags, and a considerable quantity is occasionally put together, sometimes to the height of a foot or more. When dry the whole becomes naturally brittle. It is seldom raised more than an inch or two above the water,so that except in hot seasons, it is generally quite soaked with water. " The hen bird can be observed pecking about her whole on the nest. it is related that until the latter is finished she is intent sitting at night on a similar tuft which she has raised by its side"

However, Seebohm, explains that the nest is generally a floating structure of weeds moored near an island in some reeds they are seldom concealed in the reeds and are frequently quite in the open. The eggs which number four to six are oval in shape tapering towards each end,and of a dull white colour. The bird is in the habit of covering them over with weeds when leaving the nest for a time, at least after they are all laid. On returning to the nest she sometimes uncovers the eggs but at others she will sit upon both the covering and the eggs. in consequence they soon become somewhat stained.

The eggs are incubated for twenty to twenty one days and the task is under taken by both parents. The young take to the water as soon as they are hatched.

Little grebe swimming in water weed

Andhra Pradesh India
Andhra Pradesh India | Source

Nest and eggs-historical observations.

Mr Bryan Hook,{1800's} furnishes us with the following most interesting observations respecting the breeding of the little grebe on his fathers property near Haslemere.

" On the 25th of March I found a Dabchick's nest on one of our small ponds about a foot from the water's edge,partly concealed by a tuft of heather on the bank above it. The pond was at the bottom of a field where a man was ploughing,and at the end of each furrow as he passed the nest, the bird first carefully covered her eggs, then slipped into the water without the slightest splash and remained concealed under the water among the reeds close to the nest.

" A fortnight later after I found the old bird very reluctant to move,and when at last she did dive away,she left the eggs uncovered.Two days later I found the old bird sitting in the nest with two young,and all dived away on my approach, the young ones coming up about five yards from the shore,where they floated motionless. I did not see the young birds again until a fortnight later,when I found them in the nest,wonderfully grown and able to dive about fifteen yards.

" Nearly a month later on the 30th of May, the two young birds were fully grown, and whilst one of the parents took charge of them the other sat upon the eggs in another nest,in a similar situation on the other side of the pond. She was very restless,constantly getting out of the nest. At length she found me out,and carefully covering her eggs ,slipped into the water and remained there until I came up. Four days later some of the eggs were hatched,the bird slipped off the nest on my approach, but remained among the rushes close by.

" I walked a few minutes and then plainly heard the cheeping of the young bird,so I drove away the parent bird and immediately afterwards the young ones were floating a little way from the shore.The other parent bird had a young one on its back,so I ran towards it, but the young bird scrambled under the wing of its parent,who dived away with it. The young one however, came to the surface about ten yards from the shore.

" The young bird seemed able to dive unassisted for about two yards. Old and young use their legs like a frog,horizontally,striking both at once,and bringing their feet together at the end of the stroke. I have seen the old ones diving in clear water some distance but they do not use their wings.

" I spent the following day watching the Dabchicks through a telescope. The old bird was sitting on the nest,whilst the other dived for food,which she brought at intervals of about two minutes. When she approached the nest the young birds put their heads out from under the parent's wing and took the food the other parent brought. The moment her provision was deposited she was off for more,always diving from place to place.

" The morsel when found,required a great deal of shaking before it was fit to be given to the young birds,and when prepared the parent dived with it in her beak appearing at the edge of the nest. Whilst I was watching her the bird on the nest caught sight of me,carefully covered the eggs that were still unhatched,and slipped into the water. On going up to the nest I found two of the young birds among the rushes at the margin of the pond. I retired,and after watching for a few minutes , I saw the old bird suddenly appear at the side of the nest,after diving several times underneath it and swimming once or twice around it.

" After fully two minutes of this activity it landed on the nest and proceeded most carefully to remove the covering from the eggs and arranged it around the sides of the nest. Then sitting upright for a moment and shaking its feathers,it settled its breast upon the eggs. An hour later I found the birds very busy collecting weeds to add to their nest,they made several journeys for the purpose,diving for the materials they used. A strong breeze was blowing and the waves would have in a very short time washed it away if it had not been constantly added to."

Courtesy of viscontessina { Standard You Tube license}

Young birds

The chicks in down are charming little creatures, the head and neck all round,and upper parts are nearly black striped with rich chestnut brown. The breast and belly are white and there is a white V-shaped mark on the throat.

The young in the first plumage closely resemble the adults in winter plumage,but are a trifle paler on the upper parts,and the white on the under parts are not so pure. After the first spring moult the under parts are mottled with white.


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    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      hi, thank you for your visit and you are right they are beautiful and unusual. Best wishes to you.

      DDE,,always good to see you here.

      Hello, Devika, Thank you too,for your kind comments and I am glad to reveal to you that they do occur in Croatia. Appreciate you visit.Best wishes to you..


      Hi,Nice to meet you. You are very welcome glad you enjoyed. Best wishes to you.

    • naturegirl7s profile image

      Yvonne L B 

      5 years ago from Covington, LA

      Thank you for sharing this glimpse into the European birding world.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      5 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      I enjoyed the videos and the photos are so lovely. Always an interesting and educational hub from you. I am surprised to see Croatia has these beautiful creatures. Voted up, interesting, useful and beautiful.

    • craftybegonia profile image


      5 years ago from Southwestern, United States

      Beautiful and unusual bird.


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