Mystery Bird: Pied-billed Grebe chick, Podilymbus podiceps

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[Mystery bird] Pied-billed Grebe chick, Podilymbus podiceps, photographed in California. [I will identify this bird for you tomorrow]
Image: John del Rio [larger view].

Please name at least one field mark that supports your identification.


Rick Wright, Managing Director of WINGS Birding Tours Worldwide, writes:
You probably don’t know that these photos are usually sent to me without the “answer.” But like most of you, I knew right away what this worth-two-in-the-bush nub of stringy fluff was; or did I? It was easy enough to rule out the plain, almost duckling-patterned Aechmophorus grebes, but as I pondered, it occurred to me that I’d never really had close looks at any other grebelings but Pied-billeds, and there was a bit of a logical short-circuit in my quick step from “grebe” to “Pied-billed Grebe.” The fact that my identification turns out to be accurate doesn’t make up for the fact that I made it without a fair consideration of all the other little grebes (oops, better make that small grebes) of the world.
How did we all know it was a grebe? The intricately striped pattern of the filamentous down is a good start. The short, bluntly pointed bill (already with a ring around it, by the way) also rules out other groups of waterbirds.
From here, if we start from the virtuous position of assumed ignorance, it gets a little tougher. I don’t have access to specimens or photos of all the downy grebettes of the world, but since this mystery bird was photographed in California, maybe I can be excused for limiting the possibilities right away to the species that breed in western North America. Clark’s and Western Grebes are much bigger than this when they hatch, and their down is whitish or gray, paler in Clark’s. Downy Podiceps — for our Californian purposes, Red-necked, Eared, and Horned Grebes — are said to lack stripes on the back. We’re left with Pied-billed and, I suppose, Least Grebe, chicks of which are both striped with variable density on the sides of the head. Apparently, among New World grebes north of Central America, only Pied-billed Grebe shows the rich rufous down at the side of the nape and on the lore and eyeline; this species also lacks the bare crown patch shown by many other grebe chicks.
So I know more tonight than I did this morning, always the sign of a good day’s birding.
Review all mystery birds to date.

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About GrrlScientist

grrlscientist is the pseudonym of an evolutionary biologist and ornithologist who writes about evolution, ethology, and ecology, especially in birds. After earning a degree in microbiology (thesis focus: virology) and working at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, she earned her PhD in zoology from the University of Washington in Seattle, where she studied the molecular correlates of testosterone and behaviour in white-crowned sparrows. She then worked a Chapman Postdoctoral Fellow at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where she studied the speciation and distribution of lories and other parrots throughout the South Pacific Islands. A discarded scientist, she returned to her roots: writing. Formerly hosted by The Guardian (UK), she now writes about science for Forbes and for the non-profit think tank, the Evolution Institute and she writes podcasts for BirdNote Radio. An avid lifelong birder and aviculturist, she lives with a flock of songbirds and parrots somewhere in Germany.
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0 Responses to Mystery Bird: Pied-billed Grebe chick, Podilymbus podiceps

  1. Heh. Well, it’s certainly cute as a button, whatever it is. 🙂
    My reliance on Sibley is coming back to bite me here, since Sibley doesn’t do chicks. But some googling of images leads me to believe that that might well be the chick of a Pied-billed Grebe.

  2. travelgirl says:

    pied-billed grebe chick it is… the racing stripes on the head are a dead giveaway, as is the multi-colour bill and the orange/red on the head…
    while the parents are cute as buttons, i think it would have been nice if evolution had allowed them to keep their just-born colours and patterns…

  3. llewelly says:

    It’s grebe mcnugget.

  4. Selasphorus says:

    Pied-billed Grebe chick! That mottle-stripey face in black, white, and red is the fieldmark for me.

  5. JohnB says:

    It’s a grebe chick but I honestly do not know the differences between a pied-billed chick and a red-necked chick. So a very non-committal vote for pied-billed.

  6. John Del Rio says:

    I must say I am very impressed with those of you who have identified this little chick. It took me quite some time to figure out what species it was. It was rescued from sure “death by large mouth bass” by a good friend of mine who was fishing on his private lake. It was abandoned in the middle of the lake and he called me over to try and save it. I kept it alive for a couple of days by hand feeding. I took it to a wildlife rehabber friend who kept it going for another couple of days but alas it did not make it. Regardless, it was the right thing to do. I am still enamored by the chick’s coloring. Simply precious.
    Again, I appreciate the birder pro’s on this blog. You all are GOOD!
    John

  7. Luna_the_cat says:

    I don’t know grebes, so I’m afraid my response was the natural, but less than useful, “EEEeeeeeee! So cute!”