For the Birds Radio Program: Pied-billed Grebe in a Trash Can

Original Air Date: June 10, 1996

Why would anyone throw a healthy Pied-billed Grebe into a trash can? The answer is unknowable, but fortunately a kid saw it and got help.

Audio missing


A couple of days ago, I got a phone call from a woman at the Lester River golf course about a duck tangled in plastic netting in a trash can. I went there with my friend Chris. He’s from Philadelphia, and hasn’t seen much wildlife other than pigeons in his life, so he was curious and excited about the prospect of a wildlife rescue mission as we headed for the golf course.

We went into the office and asked a young man at the desk if he knew anything about a duck. He took me outside to a garbage bin, and there was the bird. From a distance it did look like a baby duck, but was, in reality, an adult Pied-billed Grebe. These small divers have thick but fluffy brown feathers like ducklings, and a wide-eyed, innocent expression, so I wasn’t surprised about the mistaken identity. But grebes lack the flattened duck bill and don’t have webbed feet. Instead, each of their four toes has wide lobes, giving them an effective paddle without webs.

This grebe was totally tangled in green fish netting. I gave it to Chris to hold firmly but gently while I pulled out a scissors and started cutting. The bird was frightened, so I talked gently and stroked its head as I worked. By now a small crowd had gathered, so as I cut off the netting that formed a tight noose around its neck and wings, I kept up a quiet commentary about grebes—how they aren’t closely related to any other birds except other grebes, and how some of them are nicknamed helldivers because they make such long dives that fanciful people guessed they were diving to hell and back. This little grebe seemed way too innocent to be associated with hell—even though it was scared, it only tried to bite me once and then resigned itself to its fate, darting a few furtive peeks into my eyes with a pleading look, but mainly staring off into space while I cut away at more of the plastic threads and finally extricated it from the dreadful netting.

We speculated about what had happened. The grebe must have been swimming in a gold course pond, gotten ensnared, and once its feet and wings were tangled up, it somehow ended up grounded ashore. Some person must have placed it in the garbage. Fortunately, a kid cared enough to ask his mom for help.

The little bird was terrified but unhurt, and the only thing to do was to take it to water to release. So Chris and I drove to Brighton Beach and carried it to a shallow spot where kids were playing. They naturally checked us out, fascinated with this tiny, gentle bird that looked like a duck. The grebe squirmed when it saw the water but didn’t struggle against my hands. I kissed its head and set it gently in the shallow water. It sat still a minute, looking about, and then struck out, paddling into deeper water and moseying down the shore towards town. A cloud of gulls swarmed over it, a few darting at it in attack mode. I was ready to throw rocks if they hurt it, but they lost interest and flew off to bother some picnickers. I watched the grebe swim, as tiny in the big lake as Catch-22‘s Yossarian was, striking out across the ocean in a tiny inflatable raft. The bird had better odds than Yossarian, and would soon have its bearings and be back in flight.

Migration is fraught with peril for all birds, with unexpected dangers lurking around every corner. Helping individuals is a drop in the bucket compared to the millions that die, but every act of kindness that we show birds adds up. Right now there is a pond somewhere in the northwoods with one particular grebe who is alive because a lady at a golf course cared enough to call for help—a small act of compassion that saved a worthy little bird.