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Strange Birds

Western grebes are nothing if not unique.

By: Rick Burkman; Photography by Arthur Morris/Birds as Art
Updated March 21, 2019

Red eyes blazing, a Western grebe takes an aggressive posture. The sharp bill makes an effective weapon so woe to any enemy that gets in the way!

If Picasso painted a bird, it might look like a Western grebe (Aechmophorus occidentalis). Start at the velvety black crest that sits on an undersized head like a bad toupee. Fiery red eyes glare from the crisp black-and-white head, and a dueling sword of a bill pokes out the front. A long, flexible, snake-like neck sits at the front of an oval gray body; the legs are stuck near the butt. Add in a pair of huge greenish-yellow feet with grotesquely long-lobed toes, and this ancient bird looks like it was stuck together from defective spare parts. (The description of Western grebes also applies to the similar Clark’s grebes—Aechmophorus clarkii. The two birds were once considered the same species.)

Put a Western grebe on land and it moves like a parody of a bird, struggling to scoot forward like a penguin or running with the body upright and neck bent forward like a hunch-backed cartoon villain tiptoeing on some nefarious errand. Put that same bird in water and that clumsy trot turns to comical elegance.

The elegance begins with courtship. Interested pairs come together to perform a series of complex movements with names like ratchet-pointing, arch-clucking, and bob-preening. At some point the pair swim alongside each other and, with bills tilted upward, they twist their heads in synchrony with robotic jerks and stops. As if by telepathy, they lunge to a standing position, bend their long necks 90 degrees forward, and rush side by side across the water with feet slapping the surface at 20 steps per second. It is impressive and loud. Males can weigh almost four pounds, making them the largest vertebrates that can run on water. They finish their comical runs with smooth dives that would make Olympic athletes proud.

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