On a cool, gray January day at Gray Lodge Wildlife Area, I toured the three-mile loop and returned to the eucalyptus grove at the entrance for lunch. As I sat in the sheltering comfort of my car, eating chicken sandwiches and hot soup, I began to notice the lone bird in the canal pond. It was a Pied-billed Grebe, one of those less-spectacular birds in the waterways that goes about its underwater business without any fanfare.
In the marshes a few hundred yards away, a large assortment of migratory waterfowl clustered in showy groups, often splashing and dabbling in concerted effort as noticeable as the brilliant plumage of the male ducks. Mallard, shoveler, pintail, wigeon - they all composed the grand scene so eagerly sought by bird watcher and hunter alike. The magnificent Snow Geese are the envy of the bird world and a wonder to behold when they descend from the sky. Even the persistent coot is quite evident as it busily scrounges for a living in the shallows and on the shore. The coot attire is dark with only the showy white beak for exhibition. But the lowly pied-billed occupies the edges of the environment in solitary isolation, swimming so low and quietly in the water that its drab brown body is scarcely discernible.
Like the shy bittern of the reeds and the cautious kingfisher, there is a shyness and distrust of man that is quite pronounced. No one is out to shoot any of those three protected birds - not even a hungry cannibal would relish eating their fish-scented bodies - but they know only that the human prowler has the capacity to kill. Certainly the bird lover and photographer would welcome a chance to get closer and know them better, but the human bird defender is on the enemy list along with birds of prey and carnivorous mammals.
Perhaps they derived that fear of man from a time when vast numbers were killed for the feathered hat trade in southern Oregon lakes. In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt declared Malheur and Klamath Lakes a National Wildlife Refuge in order to save the grebes. Awareness must linger in their genes.
As I sat there eating my sandwich while the grebe sank beneath the surface to feed on some type of food, I felt a sort of affinity with the bird creature so different from me. We were both having our lunches. There was a difference caused by feathers, for one thing, that allowed the grebe to be insulated from the deadliness of those depths. How murky and terrible those watery realms would be to a creature like me if I were forced under or trapped by an underwater obstacle. A couple of minutes and my lungs would be flooded and oxygen denied to vital organs. I would drown. In the winter, those waters are perilously cold for a bird or mammal. Even the air-breathing grebe must hold its breath and zoom to the surface to survive. I wonder how it developed the aquatic method of life?
And then, my skin and eyes and nose and mouth are nothing like a grebe's. I have no sharp beak to enable me to snatch worms or larva, nor do I have the flanges of web on my toes for use in kicking through the current. Everything about the grebe and me is different - except the necessity to eat for our energy and to breathe the vital oxygen! There is a basic similarity of general purpose. The functions of digestion, vision, blood circulation, and movement are something in common even if the organs are of different design.
Slowly the pied-billed would surface with hardly a ripple, and then it eased back under just as quietly. Everything about the bird is quiet and efficient. No bright color giveaways, no unnecessary exposure on shore - just give it a pond to dive in, and all is well.
Then I remembered that it takes on a different guise during the breeding season. The chicken-like beak becomes banded, a dark throat marking develops, and most amazingly, they become very vocal. I remember hearing their calls around Lafayette Reservoir where they often nest in the cattails, and the "whinny" cry is loud and haunting, and you think the animal must be something big like a loon.
Like the tiny bushtit that builds the monstrous-sized bag nest, the 12-ounce pied-billed builds a huge mound of mud and stems grubbed from the bottom, which they attached to floating vegetation, and then the female lays up to eight eggs you would think too large for a grebe!
The divers will remain on local marshes, although some migrate north into Canada - in face, grebes are found in all parts of North America. You wonder how they can possibly fly long distances as they seldom leave the water, and when they do fly it is with a laborious, water-skipping takeoff and an awkward-looking flying position. The neck is bowed and the almost tailless rear end seems to hang low while the wings beat furiously.
Nearly always they dive in the face of danger, and they can stay under for 30 or 40 seconds. Often they surface in vegetation with only the head exposed for a breath, and then simply sink out of sight again. That is the nature of Podilymbus podiceps, the Pied-billed Grebe. Twenty species of grebes are found worldwide, and there are six in the United States. The pied-billed is always found at Lake Merritt in the winter, usually feeding individually along the shore, but sometimes resting in groups of a dozen or more.
Then I remembered the Pied-billed Grebe of my boyhood in Missouri. We called them hell divers, and it was believed that they could dive at the flash of a gun and beat the bullet. In a land of hunters and farmers out to shoot any waterfowl, the grebe was mostly ignored. But one day on Muddy Creek, I saw what I thought to be a duck feeding downstream, and I stalked that game, carefully crawling through the weed patches to finally peek over the edge. The "duck" was diving out of sight, but I figured it had to come up, and I cocked the hammer of my .16 gauge and waited for what seemed an impossibly long time.
I saw the slight ripple where it was easing upward and, mighty hunter that I was, I boomed a load of shot onto the target that never knew what hit it. I was disappointed that it was a hell diver, and I didn't even dare take it home. Even now I grimace to think of shooting that innocent little diver simply eking a living all alone in the wilderness of rural mid-America. Long live the Pied-billed Grebe!
© 2000 Rex Burress
January 13, 2000