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Horned Grebe

Podiceps auritus

Length: 12 to 14 inches Wingspan: 24 inches Seasonality: Migrant / Summer
ID Keys: (Breeding Plumage) Black head with golden ear tufts, reddish neck, dark bill

Horned Grebe - Podiceps auritusHorned Grebes are a widespread grebe, also found in Europe and Asia.  They are often relatively tame, allowing fairly close approach by humans.  Horned Grebes are not as gregarious as many of the grebes, and don't breed in the large colonies that other grebes sometimes do.  The Horned Grebe is similar to the Eared Grebe, but can best be differentiated in summer plumage by the reddish neck (the Eared Grebe has a blackish neck), and different patterns in the golden tufted plumage behind the eye (see notes below).


During the summer breeding season, Horned Grebes prefer areas with open water and extensive wetland vegetation, breeding in areas such as wetlands and ponds in the Prairie Potholes of the Plains of the northern US and southern Canada, or ponds, lakes, and wetlands in the boreal zone further north. During migration and in winter, they can be found in almost any aquatic habitat with adequate open water.


Mostly insects and crustaceans during summers in South Dakota, but Horned Grebes will also feed on fish, amphibians, leeches, and some plant material.


Primarily feeds by diving under the water's surface and propelling itself through the water with its feet.  They will also pluck food items from the water's surface, and even will capture passing insects as they fly by.


June and July. Courting Horned Grebes have an elaborate set of rituals that include swimming in formation together, posing for each other, and presenting each other with "gifts" of aquatic vegetation. Once a mating pair has been established, both parent stays together through incubation and raising of the young. They build a nest in shallow water, typically a mat of floating vegetation anchored to the surrounding vegetation, or a mound of aquatic vegetation that's been build up from the bottom of the pond or wetland. They form a shallow depression as a nesting site, in which the female lays between 3 and 7 eggs. Both parents help to incubate the young, a time during which each parent may bring food to the other parent when returning to the nest site. The young hatch after about 22 to 25 days, and soon leave the nest to start gathering food on their own. Both parents stay with the young, protecting them from harm until they fledge and are better able to escape danger.


In migration and in winter, Horned Grebes are often silent. However, they are very vocal on their breeding grounds, with breeding pairs courting each other wish a rapid, loud trilling duet.  They also have a loud kee-wah often given as a contact call, and a high-pitched, strained honking call that seems to be most often given in alarm.


Summers in extreme northern U.S. the western 2/3rds of Canada, and Alaska.  Generally winters along North American coastlines and large inland water bodies in the south. In South Dakota, Horned Grebes are migrants throughout the state, but are also uncommon breeding birds in the north-central and northeastern part of the state.

Interactive eBird Map:

Click here to access an interactive eBird map of Horned Grebe sightings

Similar Species:

Horned Grebes could potentially be confused with a couple of other grebe species that are found in South Dakota.

Eared Grebe - Podiceps nigricollis Eared Grebe - Podiceps nigricollis Pied-billed Grebe 10 - Podilymbus podiceps Pied-billed Grebe 6 - Podilymbus podiceps
Eared Grebe (breeding plumage) Eared Grebe (non-breeding plumage) Pied-billed Grebe (breeding plumage) Pied-billed Grebe (non-breeding plumage)

Conservation and Population Status:

Systematic surveys in both the North American and European parts of the range of Horned Grebes show very steep declines in populations over the last 40 years, with declines approaching 75% in North America. It's likely there is more than one cause behind the sharp declines. Human land use and land management has undoubtedly contributed to the decline. In the southern part of their range in the Prairie Potholes, many wetlands have been lost in the last 200 years as the land has been drained and converted to agricultural land. In recent decades, runoff from that agricultural land has caused many of the shallow lakes and wetlands preferred by Horned Grebe to undergo eutrophication, with nutrients from ag runoff fueling high-levels of algal and other vegetation growth, disrupting food webs upon which Horned Grebes depend. Forested lands further north in their breeding range have also undergone extensive land use change, with forestry activity and associated human activity disrupting local ecosystems. Horned Grebes also seem uniquely susceptible to entanglement and death from gill nets used in commercial fisheries. Overall, Horned Grebes are still found across a very broad geographic area and there are decent numbers in parts of that range, but the sharp declines in recent decades have led the IUCN to list the Horned Grebe as a "Vulnerable" species.

Further Information:

Photo Information:

April 13th, 2019 - Wall Lake, Minnehaha County - Terry Sohl

Additional Photos:

Click on the image chips or text links below for additional, higher-resolution Horned Grebe photos.

Audio File Credits:

Click on the map below for a higher-resolution view
 Horned Grebe - Range Map
South Dakota Status: Uncommon migrant throughout the state.  Uncommon summer breeding resident in the north-central and northeastern part of the state.

Additional Horned Grebe Photos
Click for a higher-resolution version of these photos
 Horned Grebe 1 - Aythya collarisHorned Grebe 2 - Aythya collarisHorned Grebe 3 - Aythya collarisHorned Grebe 4 - Aythya collarisHorned Grebe 5 - Aythya collarisHorned Grebe 6 - Aythya collarisHorned Grebe 7 - Aythya collarisHorned Grebe 8 - Aythya collarisHorned Grebe 9 - Aythya collarisHorned Grebe 10 - Aythya collaris