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The plight of the Great Crested Grebe was one of the main reasons that the RSPB was originally set up. Victorian egg collectors had taken their toll and the bird had been hunted to near extinction in the UK for ‘grebe fur’. That’s the skin and soft under-pelt of a grebe’s breast feathers, which were used as fake fur. At one stage the birds were down to just over 40 pairs.
The Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus) has distinctive ornate plumes of feathers on its head in the summer. In winter the fancy plumage is lost and the head is white with a black cap and eye stripe. It is the largest of the grebe family. The head and neck feathers form a ruff during the breeding season.
The bird's courtship display involves a number of stages, with a pair meeting on the water, shaking their heads and dipping their necks. The display will culminate in a 'weed dance' where both dive underwater and collect weed in their beaks before rushing towards each other, low above the water's surface, then rising upright to meet face to face.
The zoologist Sir Julian Huxley carried out pioneering work in the scientific study of animal behaviour. In 1914 he published a paper called ‘The courtship habits of the Great Crested Grebe’.
Find out more about Great Crested Grebes...
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Join Mike Dilger as he spots two Great Crested Grebes engaged in their courtship display:
Listen to the sound of Great Crested Grebes on the RSPB website:
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Grebes are generally to be seen on large lakes and sometimes on ponds and reservoirs. They’re also found on the coast in the winter although with milder winters many stay on lakes all year round. Great Crested Grebe populations exist in many low lying areas of Britain. Almost 50 per cent in England nest on gravel pits.
Legislation protecting the birds and increased road and rail building helped turn around the Grebe’s fortunes. Flooded gravel pits provided lots of new habitats.
All species of grebe are so adapted to life on water, and under it when they dive for food, that they can’t stand or walk on land. Their legs are set far back on their bodies and their feet are adapted to make them powerful swimmers. They even build floating nests secured to plants growing in the water.
They mainly eat fish caught by diving and they also prefer diving to flying as a means of escape.
Young grebes will ride on the backs of the adult birds. The young can't control their own body temperature so carrying them like this keeps them away from the chilly, damp nest as well as protecting them from predators.
Find out where to see one of our most engaging mammals in the sea around the British Isles.
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