For the Birds Radio Program: Pied-billed Grebe

Original Air Date: May 22, 1995

When a woman turned up on Peabody Street with her arms cradling a swaddled Pied-billed Grebe, Laura helped her rescue it. 3:19

Audio missing


This year I let my rehabilitation license expire. The time, expense, and emotional costs of rehabbing were getting too much, so I’m taking a sabbatical. But I still get plenty of calls about hurt birds. The biggest problems seem to be picture windows, cats, and lawn sprays, but every now and then something completely different comes along.

Last week, for example, a woman came to my house carrying a towel-swaddled bundle. From the window she looked like she was holding a newborn baby. When I came out, she explained that she had found this poor crippled bird struggling through her yard. It couldn’t walk very well, and it couldn’t seem to fly. She lifted the towel slightly and out popped a bird face with brown, intelligent eyes, sleek neck, and chicken-shaped bill—a Pied-billed Grebe.

We unwrapped it a bit more so I could show her the bird’s small wings and rear legs. Unlike most swimming birds, grebes don’t have webs between their toes. Instead, each toe is edged on both sides by a wide flap of skin. These lobed toes may not look as elegant as loon feet, but they apparently work just as effectively at diving for and chasing fish. Like loons, Pied-billed Grebes have legs set far back on their bodies. This makes them supreme swimmers, but abysmal walkers. If a loon or grebe somehow gets grounded, it’s stuck—it needs a running start to take wing. Wet paved parking lots and highways in the northland draw in several loons and grebes every year, and unless they’re taken to a lake or big pond, they inevitably die. This poor grebe had been waddling clumsily through yards and roads and sidewalks, and had abraided the delicate toe skin, but the cuts were still quite small and minor.

It’s not an easy task to pick up a grounded loon—their long, shark beak packs a wallop. But this little grebe’s bite wasn’t much at all. I’d never before been nibbled by a grebe, so I offered it my finger, but it just mouthed it gently like a golden retriever puppy. Its intelligent, soft looking eyes looked directly into my own, searching for understanding and imploring me to get it to water fast. Fortunately, it didn’t require any medical attention, so I simply explained to the woman why it couldn’t take off from land and she immediately wrapped up her bundle and took it to Brighton Beach for release.

I love happy endings, but I was left with two questions. First, how did the grebe get grounded in the first place? It hadn’t rained recently, and the ground was quite dry, so why did it come down in such an inappropriate place? And second, am I allowed to count a grebe wrapped in a towel on my Peabody Street list?