by Frank Keim
The Yup’ik names of the Red-necked grebe describe this bird well. Both of the above names mean, “the one that really knows how to moan and scream loud.” Yes, indeed, they are so loud that you can hear these colorful grebes calling from far across a northern lake without even seeing them. About the only other water birds that are as loud and piercing in their communication calls are loons.
I should point out that they make these almost surreal calls as well as another one I like to think of as a staccato whinnying cry only during the mating season. They are completely silent during the rest of the year.
Speaking of the mating season, immediately after they arrive on the large northern lakes of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and other parts of Alaska, they get down to the serious business of breeding. Like most other water birds, they don’t have to worry about selecting mates in the Spring, since during the winter months in their coastal habitats they’ve already done this. That said, they still perform a complex and entertaining (for us) courtship dance after they arrive on their nesting grounds in the north.
With their crests raised high, male and female face off with each other, then chest-to-chest, rise partly out of the water, making their loony calls as they do this. Next, they may sit in the water close to one another while turning their heads quickly from side to side. As they do this, they may dive underwater and bring up bits of weed detritus from the bottom, then perform their dance again while they hold the weeds in their beaks.
Another display involves both adults approaching each other with their head and bill at a 45-degree angle to the water, facing off again, then turning and quickly swimming parallel to one another, again making the same loony calls over and over again. The purpose of all this drama is to bring the pair bond to a peak just before they begin building a nest and mating.
The nest is constructed in shallow water surrounded by marsh vegetation, such as juncus reeds, cattails and sedges, by both sexes in the form of a 2-3 feet deep floating mound of the same plants with a slight depression in the middle at the top. After it is finished, it is anchored to standing plants. Four or five bluish white or pale buff eggs (soon nest-stained brown) are laid in the depression, then brooded by both sexes until they hatch about three weeks later.
Shortly after hatching, the downy, boldly striped young jump into the water, where they are fed and attended equally by both parents. For the first two or three weeks they may ride on their parents’ backs, receiving food from them while they float.
Most of their food is composed of soft insect larvae during the first week after hatching, but thereafter they are fed the insects themselves, plus small crustaceans and finally little fishes. The parents also feed them their own feathers to cushion their stomachs against the bony material in their diet. Unlike most other primarily fish-eating birds, their gizzards are not as highly developed to crush the fish bones, so the feather balls are thought to protect the stomach by padding the sharp fish bones and slowing down digestion so that the bones dissolve before they pass into the intestine.
Their first flight is thought to be around 10 weeks, which is a long time for a comparatively small water bird.
Red-necked grebes migrate over land strictly at night (when it’s clear), which tells me that they probably follow the outlines of the land and waterways below their migration trail. By day, they travel in large flocks off ocean coastlines.
They also have other Yup’ik names: Aatetetaaq in the Norton Sound-Kotlik area, and Atatek in the Nunivak Island area. These names seem to be imitative of the staccato whinnying call of the bird during their courtship period.
They are not normally hunted for food by Yup’ik hunters because, as they say, aayulit neqniatut, “grebes are not tasty,” probably due to their fish diet.