Little grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis)

Also known as: dabchick
French: Grèbe castagneux
SizeBody length: 25 cm

The little grebe is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1). It is classified as a Species of Conservation Importance (EU); receives general protection in the UK under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (as amended).

The little grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis) is also known as the dabchick and is the smallest member of the grebe family. It is a dumpy little bird with a rather blunt-looking rear, a feature often accentuated by the bird's habit of fluffing up its rump feathers. From a distance, little grebes appear to be all black but through binoculars and in good light, you can make out a chestnut brown patch on the throat and side of the neck. The bird's flanks can also show pale brown and the rear end of the bird is much lighter, almost white. The corners of the bill have a prominent yellow 'gape' mark. In winter, the birds lose this summer plumage and become pale buff on their lower quarters while their back is a dirty brown. Chicks are covered in light grey down and have a distinctive striped head and neck like most young grebes.

All members of the family are accomplished divers and to assist them in swimming under water the bird's lobed feet are placed well back at the rear of their bodies. In fact, a grebe does not move very well on land and seldom comes ashore except to breed. The little grebe's presence is usually given away by their loud whinnying trill and their 'bee-eep' calls.

The little grebe can be found across most of Britain and Ireland with the exception of Shetland and parts of the West Country. Its European range extends from southern Scandinavia across to the Baltic States, and south to the Mediterranean, Turkey and Israel. The birds also occur in Africa, on the islands of the Mediterranean and across Asia to Japan and Papua New Guinea.

Any lake or reasonably large pond in the lowlands with plenty of vegetation is likely to have at least one pair of little grebes in residence. They can often be seen on park ponds, flooded gravel pits and reservoirs, and have also turned up on coastal bays and estuaries.

Grebes are primarily fish-eaters and the little grebe is no exception, but as it takes smaller fish than others in its family, they can establish themselves on ponds that are too small to accommodate big fish. This gives them a greater choice of habitat and means the little grebe has a more widespread distribution in the UK. However, they are quite shy birds and will often lurk within easy reach of cover along the margins of the water and will dive or disappear amongst the reeds when disturbed.

The usual clutch consists of between four and six eggs, laid in April in a floating nest of vegetation anchored to submerged water plants. Young grebes are frequently carried on the adult birds' backs and are fed with small fish, crustaceans and molluscs. Grebes often give feathers to their chicks, which the young birds swallow in order to form a protective lining to their stomachs. This avoids the possibility of the stomach being damaged by the bones of their fish meals.

Little grebes are not thought to be threatened in the UK, although they are listed as a Species of European Conservation Concern. As water birds they are susceptible to pollution caused by agricultural run-off and any chemical that may find its way into their habitats.

The population status of the little grebe in Britain and Ireland is believed to be about 10,000 pairs (1999 figures). However, as the birds are fairly secretive this figure may underestimate the true numbers. The birds enjoy general protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (as amended) in the UK.

For more information on the little grebe and other bird species:

Information supplied by English Nature.

  1.  IUCN Red List (March, 2011)