Faux Duck o’ the Week

November 8, 2020 • 8:00 am

As part of his continuing series of faux ducks, biologist John Avise presents us with another species that looks like a duck but isn’t one. See if you can guess the species, and then click below the fold for the answer and other Faux Duck information.  John’s words and captions are indented.

This week we begin another group of birds that neophytes could mistake for ducks.

Adult in non-breeding condition:

Another adult non-breeder:

Sinking amidships:

Adult in breeding condition:

Transitional adult, frontal view:

Pair courting:

Adult with chicks:


Adult with fish:

Click “read more” to see the ID, some Faux Duck Facts (not fake news!), and a range map.

ID: Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps)

Grebes (family Podicipedidae) constitute another group of waterbirds that beginning birdwatchers might confuse with ducks (Anatidae).  About half a dozen grebe species inhabit North America, and I will cover these in the next several weeks.  All grebes are foot-propelled diving birds with lobate (partially webbed) feet protruding from legs far back on the body.  The Pied-billed grebe is one of the smaller members of this family and is common nearly continent-wide in North America.  Pied-billed grebes typically surface-dive headfirst, but they can also submerge slowly by gradually sinking their body beginning “amidships” (see photo).  Chicks have a striped head and look very different from the adults.  Grebes eat fish, frogs, and crustaceans, among other aquatic animals.  Grebes typically migrate at night, and I have never actually seen one in full flight.

And a range map from the Cornell site:

16 thoughts on “Faux Duck o’ the Week

  1. I love this little “duck”. One remarkable thing: the male and female do a remarkable duet, interleaving their squawks very rapidly. Sounds crazy. Here’s a clip showing this behavior. Duet starts at :30 seconds.

  2. Oh yeah! (as in a recognition, not as in a hip expression of cool).

    I think “faux” is French for false — “false” is not precisely the same as “fake”, I think. So, “Faux duck” is completely rational. “Fake” suggests malicious fabrication for intended deception.

    1. .. though I wonder if the species featured here might benefit from masquerading as ducks?…. and what is it with French words that makes them fit so well? They have a …

      Je ne sais quoi!

  3. It clearly looks like a dabchick, so I guessed ‘American dabchick’? (Much of the North American fauna resembles the Eurasian fauna, but I guess most -if not all- readers here are well aware of that, as well as of the cause).
    At any rate, Pied billed grebe and dabchick are both small grebes.

  4. Please tell me John or anyone, – asked this before – where summer & winter ranges overlap, are there some birds resident all year, or are local birds moving south in winter & more northerly birds replacing them? If habitat is suitable all year why would a bird bother to migrate? I can see that would possibly be a speciation opportunity…???

    1. I suspect that both of your hypotheses may be correct: namely, that some birds are resident all year whereas others are moving. Again, a definitive answer would require information from banding returns on individual birds (and the result well might vary across species and across specific locales).

  5. I love Pied-billed Grebes. So superb in the water! So odd!

    For years, I never saw one fly. I hypothesized, tongue in cheek, that they migrate underground. But one day, a Pied-bill was flying! Wings moving fast as bumblebee wings! It slowly lost altitude toward the lake. At about the same moment, it and I realized its angle of descent would cause it to crash into the levee, not land in the water. It side-slipped like a goose once! Twice! Three — NO! It lost aerodynamic integrity and fell the rest of the way to the water with a big splash. It immediately popped up to the surface, then made a noise fear dive.

    I think my hypothesis of underground migration is still viable.

    1. Grebes in general are terrible flyers because their wings are placed so far back for better swimming. Never seen one in the air. I think they really only fly for migration and not the sort of ‘commuting’ that mallards can do.

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