Bird of the Week: Slavonian grebe

This charismatic and colourful bird makes an abrupt change in plumage with the shifting of the seasons - and frequently eat their own feathers.

By Vanessa Amaral-Rogers
Published 29 Jul 2019, 08:00 BST
An adult Slavonian grebe in summer plumage. These birds are poor walkers, due to the position ...
An adult Slavonian grebe in summer plumage. These birds are poor walkers, due to the position of their legs being set far back on their body.
Photograph by Chris Gomersall, RSPB Images

From summer to winter, the change in plumage of the elegant Slavonian grebe (Podiceps auratus) couldn’t be more different. In the breeding season the adults don their bright colours in search of a mate. The body and neck are burgundy, and the matte black head is accentuated by a flourish of golden whiskers below crimson eyes. In winter, these birds take on more sombre tones and fade to black and white.

Like all grebes, the birds are accomplished divers; add to this the almost demonic red eye and you can see how it has earned the folk names of devil-diverhell-diver and water-witch. However, they are terrible at walking on land as their legs are so far back. 

An illustration of the Slavonian grebe in summer and winter plumage.
Photograph by Mike Langman

In America, the common name is horned grebebut this is a different subspecies which only lives in Canada and North America - the European subspecies can be found from Greenland to China. Slavonian grebes regularly eat their own feathers to act as a plug in their stomach. This acts as a filter to hold the fish bones until they can be digested.

Although a fairly common species world-wide, it is only a recent resident to Britain. They arrive in Scotland in March north and south of the Great Glen and in Strathspey. Half of the UK population  nest in RSPB Loch Ruthven nature reserve and if you visit in June, you may be lucky enough to see parents carrying humbug-striped young chicks on their back.

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