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Scott Rall Column: What's more fun than a good dive?

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I was very surprised at the number of reader contacts I received about my column a few weeks back on the American Coot. I got lots of calls, emails and stops on the street. There are still plenty of them around town but they are no longer walking around in the snow.

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I decided that I would familiarize you with another common visitor in our waters and wetlands in Nobles County. That is the Pied-billed grebe. I remember my grandpa calling them "hell divers" and if you have ever watched one you would know where they got the name. They're a funny-looking little bird that is very unique in their own right. They have about a dozen other names, some of which include American dabchick, diver dapper, dipper and water witch.

They have a body like a duck with the back third cut off. They are stocky with an overall length of 12 inches and a wing span of 24 inches. Even though they are not a duck I have always described them as your basic brown duck. Both sexes look alike and are bland brown with a little darker brown on the back.

My wife told me that generally in the human world the gals get to dress up all fancy and the guys just wear jeans, but in the world of Mother Nature the women get robbed. It is the males that get all brightly colored and get to show off while the women get to dress in your basic brown duck apparel.

She knows this is because the females sit on nests and don't want to attract the attention of predators but she still thinks the females get the short stick. She should know; no other woman has as much jewelry, purses or shoes as my wife.

Pied-billed grebes do not have webbed feet like a duck but they seem to swim as good or better. They actually have lobes on each side of their toes that open up when they swim and a beak that looks like it belongs on a chicken. In later summer the beak will get a dark band around it, which is where they got their name. They make a sound that I would describe as a combination of a growl and clearing your throat.

It does sound pretty cool to me.

They hardly ever fly; much like the back bandits I call coots. They do migrate and also do it at night like the coot. When they fly their feet stick out the back because they are attached so far to the rear to aid in diving. They dive over and over and because of his they were considered reclusive. They can dive to 20 feet and use it to avoid danger. They can stay under for 30 seconds and will swim away under water quite a distance to avoid danger. When they come up for air they can swim with just a little of their head out of the water and their entire body under water so as not to be seen.

They nest in the water on floating vegetation and raise two batches of young per year. Both mom and dad do the sit and think ritual while incubation takes place over 23 days and they cover the nest if they have to leave it for any length of time. The young don't swim well at first and generally stay out of the water. They ride on their parents' backs and at 4 weeks are swimming and diving. Parents both raise the young and dive for food.

They eat invertebrates, small fish, frogs and tadpoles. They can crush the skeletons of hard-bodied food like crayfish. They will even take to salads of vegetation if other food sources are not plentiful. One unique fact about grebes is that they even eat their own feathers to aid in digestion and protect their insides from damage from small bones or sharp shells. They also feed their feathers to their young.

This seem pretty odd to me.

Unlike the American coot, wood ducks and other shore birds, grebes are very sensitive to human disturbance. They will abandon their nests if frightened by boats, jet skis or other loud sound. Their reproduction efforts very likely fail if this disturbance is encountered.

I have watched grebes for hours while bank fishing over the years and they seem like a lot of energy in a small package. Their populations are in a general decline like most wetland-dependent species. There are places in the United States where they are considered locally extinct. In other areas they are listed as a species of concern but are pretty stable in most of their distribution range.

Loss of habitat in the form of wetland destruction is the primary cause. Wetlands are considered waste land to many folks but these vital wetland resources are one of the most diverse and unique habitats in North America. Minnesota has lost over 95 percent of its wetlands in many areas and this loss continues even today.

Take a drive and go find a pied-billed grebe. Take the kids and enjoy watching this little bundle of energy. I know that if the kids are present you will have to just call them dive dappers, but to my long deceased grandpa Bender from Wetonka, South Dakota they will always be called hell divers.

Scott Rall is The Daily Globe's outdoor columnist. His column can also be read weekly at www.dglobe.com.

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