The Red-necked Grebe (Podiceps grisegena)

by Ian H. Neilson and Nancy Murdoch
August 9, 2011


I started out inside a bluish white egg on a floating raft of rushes and fresh weeds in a pond in Calgary, Alberta.  It seemed like forever but I actually was only inside the egg for about 23 days. 

Red-necked Grebe at the nest turning eggs by Ian Neilson ©

It turns out that I was not alone.  Although there could have been up to nine of us in the nest, I ended up having three brothers and one sister.  Our mother called us precocious which means that we were up and moving within a few hours of hatching.  My sister and brothers all looked alike, mottled grey fluff balls with dark stripes on our heads.  We all had the funniest looking feet – three large paddle shaped toes on each foot with one tiny toe at the back.  Every time I looked at my brother’s feet I chittered!  They looked like toes that had been smashed by a hammer.

We were all out on the water paddling around very quickly.  Mom and dad brought us some really tasty dragonflies and minnows right away.  Once in a while mom fed us her own feathers for some reason.  I think it made it easier for us to digest the fish bones and insect skeletons.  I watched mom and dad dive down hunting for food and wanted to try but my feathers were too fluffy for me to go underwater right away.  The first time I went underwater was riding on my mom’s back.  Watching my parents hunt with a bird’s eye view really taught me what I was supposed to do.  Eventually I learned how to squeeze the air out of my feathers to make it easier to dive and hunt.

Red-necked Grebe and Babies by Ian H. Neilson ©

Although my parents were feeding me, I started picking at insects and tadpoles near the surface very quickly and once I figured out how to dive I learned how to catch minnows and frogs.  We didn’t spend much time on the nest after we hatched since it was like a big target for gulls, terns and ravens to pick us off.  Sleeping on the water was an option but sometimes there were big fish lurking down below that would have had us for dinner.  Instead, we slept on the backs of our parents, snuggled into their feathers. 

Red-necked Grebe by Ian H. Neilson ©

My baby feathers were floating away daily and being were replaced by dull grayish brown winter feathers.  Some of the feathers on my neck seemed a little reddish like my mom and dad though.

Flight was not something I really worked on until near the end of the summer because I really had no need to go anywhere.  My legs are quite far back on my body so to lift off the water I had to learn to run along the surface while flapping my wings really hard.  Eventually I lifted off and flew across the pond.  I would prefer to swim and dive though.  Walking on land is just out of the question!

It started getting cooler and cooler and insects were getting harder to find.  Mom and dad seemed restless and flew around the pond more and more.  I began to understand that we would be moving.  One fall evening my parents rose up into the sky and began to circle around to let us know that tonight was the night.  We flew overnight into the south and after stopping over in a few quiet ponds we came to a wide bay where a river mixed into the ocean.  The water tasted a bit salty sometimes but the fishing was fabulous! 

Red-necked Grebe and young by Ian Neilson

It got fairly cold there and sometimes the edges of the river had ice but because the water was moving slowly, it never froze all the way across.  I spent less and less time near my brothers, sisters and parents and explored the area on my own.

After a few months the weather started getting warmer.  My old winter feathers were slowly being replaced by a new spring set.  These were really something!  My new suit:  grey feathers on my back, bright rusty red on my neck, white chin and cheeks and dark grey over my eyes and head.  I must say I enjoyed looking at them in the reflection on the water. 

Red-necked grebe by Ian Neilson ©

I began to yearn for my own pond and so I started back.  One day on the migration I saw a most beautiful bird.  She had a fine set of feathers that looked similar to mine.  We tried hard to impress each other.  I attempted all sorts of things, shaking my head, presenting her with mouthfuls of weeds, doing a little dance with my head lowered to the surface of the water and oddly enough, she copied me.  As we travelled along back to my pond, we got pretty good at our “dances”.  We could dance along side by side while running along the water. 

By the time we got back to the pond, it was very obvious that we were going to spend our lives together and raise a family.  We picked out a nice area fairly close to the shore where we could build our nest.  A few other red-necked grebes came by to check out our location.  I had to give them the message to get lost by flapping my wings, hunching over to look menacing and thrusting my bill at them.  Eventually everyone on the pond had picked out their spots and things were peaceful. 

Red-necked grebes courting by Ian Neilson ©

My mate and I built a wonderful big floating nest and anchored it to the bottom.  Our dances side by side eventually turned into what I call the “penguin dance” where we dance breast to breast and mate.  Once we started to dance like this, my mate started laying eggs.

We both took turns sitting on the eggs.  At night sometimes we covered over the eggs and slept little way off from them so no predators like raccoons would know they were there.  Our first family of four hatched in June and now I feel like my life has come full circle.

Nancy Murdoch and Ian Neilson


Nancy Murdoch, CA

Nancy is a Chartered Accountant with her own public practice and a lifelong birder.  Prior to obtaining her accounting designation she worked as a zookeeper for eight years at Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg.  She is a published author of a bird finder guide and has had an article on bird behaviour published in an encyclopedia. 

Ian Neilson CCC, B.Ed, MBA

Ian comes from a modest upbringing in Aberdeenshire, Scotland.  He was first inspired to be a chef where he nurtured his intrinsic and creative talents.  After immigrating to Canada in 1966 he competed for Canada attaining fifty-nine gold medals internationally including the World Culinary Olympics, one of the world’s most prestigious culinary medals.

He began teaching culinary arts and completed a Bachelor of Education in 1992 at the University of Alberta.  He attained his Master of Business Administration from Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario in 1996. 

Through out his life photography has been Ian’s passion.  Now retired from the teaching profession, Ian teaches photo software and photography courses in Calgary as well as freelancing for the Senior’s Magazine in Alberta.  Ian specializes in nature photography and landscapes and has been the recipient of numerous awards for his photographs.



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