Great crested grebe (Podiceps cristatus)

French: Grèbe huppé
GenusPodiceps (1)
SizeWingspan: 59-73 cm (2)
Length: 46-51 cm (2)

The great crested grebe is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1). Receives general protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (3). Included in the Birds of Conservation Concern Green List (low conservation concern) (4).

The great crested grebe (Podiceps cristatus) is the largest grebe in Europe (2). It is a graceful bird, with its long neck, long bill and slender outline. In summer, the adults of both sexes are adorned with beautiful head-plumes (2), which are reddish-orange in colour with black tips (5); there is also an erectile black crown (2). The sexes are similar in appearance, but great crested grebe juveniles can be distinguished by the possession of blackish stripes on the cheeks (2).

The great crested grebe has a wide distribution in Britain, but occurs sparsely (3). Breeding occurs in Europe from Britain, Spain and Ireland across to Russia, but the distribution is rather patchy (3).

In Britain, the great crested grebe breeds in large shallow water bodies, where there is a fringe of vegetation (3). In winter it can also be found in gravel-pits, estuaries, deep lakes, coastal pools, reservoirs and off the coast in inshore waters (6).

The great crested grebe dives for fish, insects and invertebrate larvae, chasing prey under water by strongly swimming with its feet (6).

Pairs begin to form during the middle of winter, and nesting can start in January, providing that conditions are mild (6). The great crested grebe is well known for its elaborate courtship display, in which pairs raise and shake their head plumes, and approach each other with weed in their bills, rising up breast to breast in the water and turning their heads from side to side (5). The nest is either a hidden mound of reeds and other vegetation or else a floating platform anchored to vegetation (5). After May (5), between one and nine (but usually four) eggs are laid (7), which take 27 to 29 days to incubate (7). Both great crested grebe parents are involved in incubation; when they leave the nest they cover the eggs with rotting vegetation to keep them warm (5). After hatching, the stripy chicks are carried around on the backs of their parents, they fledge at around 71 to 79 days of age (8).

The attractive great crested grebe was persecuted in Britain during Victorian times to such an extent that it was reduced to just 42 pairs in 1860 (9), and was on the brink of extinction (10). The breast plumage, known as 'grebe fur', and the head plumes were highly prized in hat trimmings and other clothing (9).

In 1889 a group of women formed the 'Fur, Fin and Feather Folk' in order to protest against the massacre of birds purely for clothing (9). Within one year the group had more than 5000 members. From 1904 this group was known as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), and is today one of Europe's largest and most influential conservation charities, with over 1 million members (10). The great crested grebe has since expanded greatly in numbers and range, and is one of the most resounding conservation successes that Great Britain has known.

For more information on the great crested grebe and other bird species:

Information authenticated by the RSPB:

  1. IUCN Red List (March, 2011)
  2. Mullarney, K., Svensson, L., Zetterstrom, D., & Grant, P.J. (1999) Collins Bird Guide. HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, London.
  3. JNCC (November 2002)
  4. RSPB (2003) The population status of birds in the UK:
  5. Gooders, J. (1982) Collins British Birds. William Collins Sons and Co Ltd, London.
  6. Lack, P. (1986) The Atlas of Wintering Birds in Britain and Ireland. T. & A. D. Poyser Ltd, Calton.
  7. Walters, M. (1994) Eyewitness Handbooks: Birds Eggs. Dorling Kindersley, London.
  8. RSPB (2003) Pers. comm.
  9. Greenoak, F. (1979) All the birds of the air. Book Club Associates, London.
  10. RSPB History (November 2002):