- Great Grebe
 - Great Grebe
 - Great Grebe
 - Great Grebe

Great Grebe Podiceps major Scientific name definitions

Francesc Llimona, Josep del Hoyo, Francesc Jutglar, and Guy M. Kirwan
Version: 1.0 — Published March 4, 2020
Text last updated September 10, 2015

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Editor's Note: This is a shorter format account, originally published in HBW Alive. Please consider contributing your expertise to update and expand this account.

The Great Grebe is the largest of the Podicipedidae.  It is distributed widely throughout southern South America, with a disjunct population in Peru.  With a very long, thin neck, dagger-like bill, rufous neck, dark back, and whitish underparts, this species is rather unique in appearance.  Great Grebes catch fish, crabs, and occasionally the young of other waterbirds by diving.  Perhaps in part because of this catholic diet, Great Grebes can be found in most large bodies of water ranging from rocky coasts to marshy estuaries to inland rivers and lakes.


c. 67–77 cm; one male 1131 g (1), one female 1646 g (2). The largest grebe, in some plumages recalling wholly allopatric P. grisegena, but readily separated by overall size and by longer neck and bill, while long bill and colour of neck help separate it from other large grebes. Nominate race in breeding plumage has forehead and crown blackish grey with metallic greenish gloss, feathers on rear crown elongated and can be erected to form obvious crest (tallest on mid-crown), dark grey hindneck more or less glossed metallic green; upperparts dark grey-brown to blackish; upperwing-coverts dark brownish grey to brown, remiges mostly brown-grey on outer primaries and inner secondaries, otherwise largely white, with some pale cinnamon tips to white feathers; face and head-sides, including chin and throat, dark ash-grey to slate-grey (not readily contrasting with crown), uppermost neck often darker grey with greenish gloss, rest of neck and upper breast reddish chestnut, sides reddish chestnut and grey-brown, flanks grey-brown, rest of underparts  creamy white, undertail-coverts bright rufous (and usually raised, thus rear body appears characteristically peaked); underwing  pattern similar to upperwing, but dark areas of remiges paler, coverts white or creamy with pale cinnamon tinge; iris dark red to dark brown, narrow pale grey inner ring; bill variable, uniformly blackish grey or paler on distal third, or grey and horn with duskier culmen and some blackish on mandible, or paler greenish or yellowish with darker culmen; legs  dark grey. Sexes similar; female apparently smaller than male and has paler face and paler and slimmer bill. Non-breeding adult has less blackish crown , and much whiter face and lores contrasting with dark line from eye to gape; chin and throat white, neck paler and duller with only slight rusty wash, lower foreneck and chest whitish in centre, sides paler and greyer; bill pale with dark culmen. Juvenile  similar to non-breeding adult, but slightly paler overall, head  with white and blackish striping, neck initially also striped dark brown and whitish, but soon becomes plainer and greyer, iris may be pale, bill shorter. Race <em>navasi</em> larger than nominate, with obviously darker face and bill.

Systematics History

Editor's Note: This article requires further editing work to merge existing content into the appropriate Subspecies sections. Please bear with us while this update takes place.

Sometimes isolated in monospecific genus Podicephorus on basis of morphology, supported by behavioural differences. Formerly placed in Aechmophorus, but similarities superficial. Older name leucopterus might be applicable to taxon navasi but is probably a nomen oblitum (3). Birds from coastal Peru probably constitute a further, undescribed race. Two subspecies recognized.



Podiceps major major Scientific name definitions

NW Peru; Paraguay and extreme SE Brazil S to Patagonia and C Chile.


Podiceps major navasi Scientific name definitions

S Chile (S of R Bío Bío).


Editor's Note: Additional distribution information for this taxon can be found in the 'Subspecies' article above. In the future we will develop a range-wide distribution article.


Found mainly on open water. Inlets fringed with vegetation on large lakes ; low-altitude lakes and sluggish rivers, especially in forested areas; estuarine marshes. In NW of range (W Peru S to C Chile) found mainly at coastal lagoons. Outside breeding season found also along coast , frequenting estuaries, bays and areas with kelp (Macrocystis), and non-breeders may occur in such places throughout year; occasionally seen on open sea. In extreme S of range, 19 in full breeding plumage up to 1 km from shore along 5-km stretch of coast NW from Bahia Scourfield (Wollaston I) in late Dec 1984, though not subsequently found on local lakes and ponds (4). Sea-level to 1200 m.


Generally moves to coastal waters after breeding season; at onset of breeding, moves from salt back to fresh water. Strays onto open sea some distance from land, e.g. one individual c. 40 km off coast of NE Argentina; at least six records from Falkland Is. Two records from Spain during 1900–1910 highly dubious; most unlikely to have reached Europe unaided.

Diet and Foraging

Apparently mainly fish  . On R Paraná, in NE Argentina, prey comprised fish (71%), insects (14%), crustaceans (10%) and molluscs (5%). Fish consumed include some species of open waters, others linked with aquatic vegetation. Takes fish up to 10·5 cm in length, but mostly 2–5 cm, thus reducing competition with Neotropical Cormorant (Phalacrocorax brasilianus), which normally takes larger fish. In shallow, rocky coastal waters around mouth of R de la Plata, in Uruguay, this grebe takes large quantities of small crabs (Brachyura), as well as small fish. Other prey items recorded include young of other waterbirds, e.g. coots (Fulica). Highly specialized for rapid diving in open waters. In study of this species’ foraging ecology across three increasingly marine sites at Mar Chiquita coastal lagoon, in Argentina, the most frequent prey were brachyuran crabs (Cyrtograpsus angulatus and Neohelice granulata), followed by various fish species, and there was no difference in diving time for different prey types and foraging sites; handling time was higher for crabs, and foraging effort and efficiency were higher for individuals that preyed on crabs, although no differences were detected in biomass and energy return; the results suggest that foraging behaviour of this grebe is opportunistic, in response to apparent higher availability of crabs in this area and possibly other estuaries (5). Gregarious, especially outside breeding periods, when sometimes gathers in flocks of several hundred individuals.

Sounds and Vocal Behavior

Commonest call a loud moaning “huaa”, more than 1 second long, given during advertising and courtship, also as contact between partners. Also a repeated loud “aup-aup-aup…” as alarm  .


Season fairly irregular, some populations apparently breeding at any time of year; season Jul–Jan in SE Brazil, but most laying occurs Oct–Jan, becoming steadily later towards S; sometimes two broods, perhaps more, in a season; isolated Peruvian populations Sept–Oct, with possible second clutch Jan–Feb. Moderately sociable, frequently forming colonies, sometimes large ones, with some nests only 1·3 m apart. Nest  a floating platform of aquatic vegetation. Clutch 3–5 eggs , occasionally 6; no information on incubation and fledging periods; downy chicks Young chicks with parents Adult and chick on water Three chicks with parent have black and white stripes on head  and neck , body brownish-grey with some whitish stripes, paler below.

Not globally threatened (Least Concern). Widespread and common throughout most of range. Estimated global population c. 50,000 individuals; true numbers possibly much greater. Isolated population of coastal Peru formerly considered merely accidental; very local, but fairly common in places, e.g. Bahía de Paracas, where up to 68 individuals regularly observed during 1974–1986. Much of this species’ wetland habitat remains in virgin state or only slightly altered, especially in S of range.

Distribution of the Great Grebe
  • Year-round
  • Migration
  • Breeding
  • Non-Breeding
Distribution of the Great Grebe

Recommended Citation

Llimona, F., J. del Hoyo, F. Jutglar, and G. M. Kirwan (2020). Great Grebe (Podiceps major), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (J. del Hoyo, A. Elliott, J. Sargatal, D. A. Christie, and E. de Juana, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.gregre1.01