E-Fauna BC: Electronic Atlas of the Wildlife of British Columbia

Podiceps auritus (Linnaeus, 1758)
Horned Grebe
Family: Podicipedidae

Species account author: Jamie Fenneman
Photo of species

© Tim Zurowski  Email the photographer   (Photo ID #10362)

Distribution of Podiceps auritus in British Columbia.
(Click on the map to view a larger version.)
Source: Distribution map provided by Jamie Fenneman for E-Fauna BC

Species Information

Breeding adult
This plumage is acquired ~March-April and is held into the late summer. The upperparts are primarily dull greyish-black, sometimes with a brownish tinge, with paler feather edges throughout the back, scapulars, rump, and upperwing coverts (giving the upperparts a somewhat scaled appearance). The secondaries and innermost lesser and median upperwing coverts are white, forming two discrete white patches on each wing that can be seen in flight. The lower breast and belly are whitish and the sides and flanks are rufous or rufous-chestnut, often with some darker dusky-brown mottling. The neck is primarily bright rufous, except for a dark dusky-brown stripe along the back of the neck. The head is largely blackish with long, bushy feathers forming a greatly distended hood that is most apparent on the lower portions of the face. A bright yellow or buffy-yellow stripe extends from the eye back towards the nape, where it flares into a pair of “horns” (one on each side of the head); the lores are dull rufous and the crown and forehead are dull blackish (paler and greyer on the forehead and forecrown). The iris is bright red, the relatively short, straight, pointed bill is blackish with a very small whitish or pale yellow tip, and the legs and feet are dark blue-grey to brownish-black with yellow edges to the toes.

Non-breeding adult
The non-breeding plumage is acquired in late summer or early fall (~August-September) and is held into the following spring. Upperparts are uniformly dark greyish-black with somewhat paler and greyer feather edges, giving the upperparts a faintly scaled pattern. The upperwings show a bold white patch on the secondaries (visible only in flight) but many individuals do not show a second white patch on the upperwing coverts, as is present during the breeding season. The underparts are largely whitish, washed with grey on the lower belly and undertail coverts, with dark greyish-black or brownish-grey mottling and streaking on the sides and flanks. The foreneck is whitish and variably washed with grey, becomiong darker (sometimes almost blackish) on the sides of the neck, there is also a dark blackish stripe down the back of the neck. The chin, throat, cheeks, sides of the nape, and lower ear coverts are white, forming a bold white face patch that contrasts sharply with the black cap formed by the blackish forehead, crown, upper ear coverts, and centre of the nape; there is often a small, irregular whitish or pale greyish loral spot. Bare part colouration is generally similar to that of the breeding-plumaged adult, but the bill is paler and greyer or horn-coloured, although there is still a small pale or whitish tip.

This plumage is retained into the fall (October-November) of the first year, after which it is lost and an adult-like non-breeding plumage is attained. This plumage is more or less similar to the adult non-breeding plumage, but the sides of the face show variable, irregular dusky-brown stripes and the overall head/face pattern is more diffuse and less sharply contrasting. The foreneck is washed with buffy-brown, and the plumage is overall browner than that of the non-breeding adult and lacks the pale feather edges on the upperparts.

Total Length: 29-33 cm
Mass: 300-567 g

Source: Sibley (2000); Stedman (2000)



The Horned Grebe is most likely to be confused with the similar-sized and similar-plumaged Eared Grebe throughout the year, with molting and non-breeding birds offering particular identification challenges. Once familiar, subtle, but diagnostic, differences in size and structure should allow for identification of most or all individuals. Specifically, the Horned Grebe is a slightly larger and bulkier species than the Eared Grebe, with a slightly thicker, shorter neck. More importantly, the head of the Eared Grebe is noticeably peaked over the eye, whereas the peak on the head of the Horned Grebe occurs behind the eye (at the back of the crown). This feature is of primary identification importance outside of the breeding season. Finally, Eared Grebe has a much more slender, pointed bill that is slightly upturned and lacks the tiny white tip that is present on the bill of the Horned Grebe.

The plumage of these two species is also an important consideration for identification. During the breeding season, the colour of the neck (rufous in Horned Grebe, black in Eared Grebe) is an obvious field mark, although this can be somewhat difficult to determine on very distant birds. In addition, the upperparts of Horned Grebe show narrow paler grey scaling throughout, whereas those if the Eared Grebe are solid blackish. The size and shape of the yellowish plumes on the sides of the head also differ between these species, and provide an important field mark at long range. In the Horned Grebe, a broad yellow post-ocular stripe extends from the eye back towards the nape, where it flares into a pair of broad, solid yellow “horns”. Eared Grebe, in contrast, shows a wispy, diffuse patch of yellow plumes behind (but not reaching) the eye. These differences in head pattern become considerably more difficult to use during molt in the spring and fall, when both species can show intermediate head patterns that are much more similar than during the height of the breeding season.

In the winter (and when in juvenal plumage), Horned and Eared Grebes become particularly difficult to distinguish. The pattern of the head and neck, as well as the aforementioned differences in size and structure, are the most important field marks in these plumages. Most importantly, Eared Grebe has a more extensive black cap on the head that often extends down onto the sides of the face (becoming paler and greyer) where it isolates a crescent-shaped white area along the rear of the ear coverts. Horned Grebe, in contrast, has the black cap extending down only as far as the eye with a bold, broad white area across the throat, cheeks, and sides of the face. Finally, the foreneck of the Eared Grebe averages considerably darker and greyer than the foreneck of Horned Grebe (which is white to pale grey), although darker Horned Grebes can approach pale Eared Grebes in this characteristic.

Calls frequently only on the breeding grounds, with migrant and wintering birds vocalizing only rarely. The most commonly-heard call is a whining, nasal, descending, often repeated way-urr or ja-orrrrh that ends with a throaty rattle. Pairs on the breeding grounds often engage in “duetting”, which consists of both individuals producing a loud, high-pitched, accelerating, often pulsating trill: dji-ji-ji-ji-ji-ji-ji-ji-ji-ji-ji-jrrh. Duets can also be more staccato and stuttering, with less continuous cadence and shorter phrases of 2-3 notes (kru-vu, kru-vu, kru-vu or dji-ji, dji-ji, dji-ji), or more intense and squeakier (dji-ji……JOARRH, dji-ji……JOARRH). Multiple pairs often call simultaneously, producing a sustanined chorus. When alarmed, gives a drier, shriller chatter. Wintering and migrant birds occasionally produce a variety of high, thin notes (especially when in flocks), and fall migrants may give a complaining, nasal keeawuk-keeawuk-keeawuk.

Source: Sibley (2000); Stedman (2000)

Breeding Ecology

Pair formation occurs in mid- to late winter or during spring migration and pairs remain monogamous throughout the breeding season (sometimes for multiple years). Four different courtship displays have been described, including a ‘Discovery Ceremony’, ‘Weed Ceremony’, ‘Head-shaking Ceremony’, and ‘Triumph Ceremony’. During the ‘Discovery Ceremony’, which initiates the courtship process and may be given by unpaired males in mid-winter as they seek mates, the male adopts an upright posture with the base of the neck and rear portion of the body puffed-out, the remaining feathers partly erected, and the crests erected (but not flared); the male often gives the aaaanrrh or jaorrrh advertising call during this display. When a prospective mate approaches a displaying male, he further puffs out the body feathers, partly spreads the wings, and adopts a more hunched posture while the approaching female dives and pops up briefly (often several times in a row). The two birds then swim parallel, rise up on their feet, and ‘run’ across the surface of the water for several seconds using rapid movement of their feet. Following this, the birds return to the surface of the water and engage in mutual preening. The pair often engages in multple bouts of such displays before finally swimming away from each other. Some pairs, apparently in the place of the early stages of the ‘Discovery Ceremony’, engage in a ‘Head-shaking Ceremony’ that involves the two birds facing each other with head feathers and horns flared and then performing a series of rapid, lateral head waggles of variable duration.

If the birds involved in the ‘Discovery Ceremony’ or ‘Head-shaking Ceremony’ appear to be compatible, the separating birds repeatedly dive and return to the surface with weeds or algae in the bill (‘Weed Ceremony’), subsequently approaching each other with their weeds. The two birds then rise up breast-to-breast, immediately turn side to side, and ‘run’ across the surface of the water together for 5-10 m. This sequence often occurs multiple times in succession. Finally, if the pair formation has been successful, the individuals of the pair will swim side-by-side in a hunched posture while eliciting trilling duet calls (‘Triumph Ceremony’).

Nests are often solitary or in small, loose aggregations, in contrast to the colonial nesting behaviours of several other species of grebe (Eared, Red-necked, Western). Both members of the pair contribute to the construction of the nest, but construction is often initiated by the male. The construction of the nest takes as little as only a few hours to as much as several days. It is a low, mounded mass of aquatic vegetation, mud, and debris (usually collected from within 25 m of the nest) that is usually either affixed to emergent vegetation and floating or is built in shallow water from the bottom up; however, occasional nests are built on dry land at or very near the edge of the water. The nest is ~20-40 cm in diameter, with a central depression that is ~10-20 cm in diameter. Nest construction, especially around the rim of the nest, continues after the eggs are laid.

An initial clutch of (3) 4-5 (8) eggs is laid between mid-May and mid-June and is incubated by both parents for 22-25 days before hatching; a second clutch may also be laid as late as mid-July. Eggs are laid at daily intervals, with incubation beginning on the third or fourth egg. The eggs are smooth and pure white. Eggs are present in B.C. between mid-May and mid-August, with most clutches active between mid-June and early July.

The young are active and fully precocial upon hatching leaving the nest almost immediately to follow the adults. The downy chicks are pale greyish on the body and pale buffy on the head and neck and are extensively striped with long, longitudinal black stripes throughout. There is a small, pinkish patch of bare skin on the crown and the short, pointed bill is pinkish with two vertical dark bands on the upper mandible. The eyes are dark and the legs and feet are dark grey. The chicks are fed and closely tended by both parents (sometimes only one parent for older chicks) for 10-14 days after hatching, often riding on the back of the parent. The young remain as a family group even after parental feeding ceases, and are able to fly at 41-50 days of age. Dependent young are present in British Columbia between early June and early September, with most broods occurring throughout July.

Source: Campbell et al. (1990a); Baicich and Harrison (1997); Stedman (2000)
Foraging Ecology

The selection of food items varies throughout the year, reflecting a change from freshwater habitats during the breeding season to largely marine habitats in the winter (at least along the coast). During the summer, it feeds mainly on aquatic arthropods (aquatic insects, freshwater crustaceans, etc.), although it occasionally snatches flying insects directly from the air and may even take larger prey such as tadpoles, small frogs, small fish, leeches, etc. In marine habitats during the winter and migration, its diet switches to include primarily small fish, crustaceans, and marine worms, most of which are captured in benthic (bottom) rather than midwater habitats. The Horned Grebe tends to forage in shallow to moderately deep (up to 6 m in depth) waters, selecting particularly shallow foraging habitats during the breeding season. Prey is captured during relatively brief dives. Smaller prey is consumed underwater, but larger prey (fish, etc.) is brought to the surface to be manipulated prior to consumption. Most foraging birds occur singly or in small groups (<5 individuals) throughout the year, although during the winter and migrantion may form aggregations or even loose flocks of up to 200 individuals.

Source: Stedman (2000)


Breeding birds prefer to nest on small ponds, marshes, sloughs, oxbows, and shallow bays along the edges of lakes, both in forested as well as open (grassland) environments, and requires the presence of both open water as well as beds of emergent vegetation (sedges, cattails, rushes, etc.); also nests in reservoirs, beaver ponds, and artificial ponds where they are available. It tends to nest more frequently in eutrophic wetlands, with an abundance of nutrients and plant growth, but some pairs are also able to nest successfully in more barren oligotrophic water bodies. Migratory individuals throughout the interior occur in similar habitats, but more often occur on larger, deeper lakes, rivers, and wetlands. Wintering birds in the southern interior arte closely associated with large, deep lakes and major rivers. Along the coast, during both migration and winter, this species occurs primarily in nearshore marine waters, particularly in sheltered locations such as bays, estuaries, harbours, coves, and inlets. Occasionally, wintering and (especially) migrant birds along the coast occur on large coastal lakes or along the lower reaches of major rivers (e.g., Fraser River).

Source: Campbell et al. (1990a); Stedman (2000); COSEWIC (2009)


Global Range

Breeds across boreal and prairie regions of western North America, from Alaska east to coastal Manitoba, south to southern B.C., Montana, and South Dakota, with isolated breeding populations in Oregon and on the Atlantic coast (Magdalen Islands). Winters along the Pacific coast from Alaska to Baja California, as well as along the Atlantic coast from Nova Scotia to Texas. Wintering populations also occur inland in the Pacific Northwest, along the Colorado River in the southwestern U.S., and throughout much of the southeastern U.S north to Oklahoma and Kentucky. Also breeds across northern Eurasia, wintering along the Atlantic coast of Europe and the Pacific coast of northeastern Asia (south to Korea).
BC Distribution

Generally an uncommon breeder at low elevations throughout the southern interior from the Coast and Cascade Ranges east to the Rocky Mountains, although it is locally fairly common in the Chilcotin region; rare to uncommon farther north through the central interior, north at least to the Mackenzie and Bulkey Valley regions. Uncommon to fairly common in the Peace River lowlands of northeastern B.C., becoming uncommon and more local farther north to the Fort Nelson region. Uncommon in northernmost areas of B.C. west of the Rocky Mountains and south of the Yukon border.

Common in winter in nearshore marine waters along the entire coast, including all offshore islands. Also fairly common throughout the Okanagan Valley of the south-central interior, becoming uncommon at low elevations north to Shuswap Lake and west to the Thompson and Nicola Basins; also uncommon to fairly common in winter in the Arrow Lakes and associated stretches of the Columbia River in the southeastern interior. Very rare and irregular elsewhere in the southern interior in winter, north to Williams Lake, west to the Coast and Cascade Mountains, and east to the Creston Valley. Casual to accidental in winter in central B.C. north of Williams Lake, except in the Burns Lake-Francois Lake region of the west-central interior, where the species is locally uncommon on open water.

Fairly common to common spring and fall migrant throughout B.C. Along the coast, spring migration occurs primarily during April and May, with peak movements in mid- to late April or into early May; late spring migrants occasionally linger into early June, with a very few birds sometimes lingering throughout the summer as non-breeders. In the interior, the first spring migrants generally appear in late March, with peak northward movements occurring in April; the latest spring migrants in the interior occur in mid- to late May. Timing of fall migration is similar throughout the province, beginning in early to mid-August and extending through November, with peak movements in late September and October.

Source: Campbell et al. (1990a)


Population and Conservation Status

This species is relatively common throughout the province, especially along the coast during the winter and migration when it is often the most common and widespread species of grebe. A significant and sustained continent-wide decline of 2.7% per year between 1968 and 2007, however, has resulted in the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) placing this species on its list of federal species of species of ‘Special Concern’. During this 40-year period, the total population appears to have declined by nearly 70%, with accelerating rates of decline (5.2% per year, or nearly 50% of the total population) over the past 12 years. The centre of breeding abundance of the species appears to be contracting to the north and west, and the largest declines (7.3% per year) have occurred in Alberta. The cause of these declines are largely unknown, although prolonged droughts across central portions of the continent appear to be a significant contributor.

Source: Stedman (2000); COSEWIC (2009)


Two subspecies of Horned Grebe are recognized, although only one (P.a.cornutus [Gmelin]) occurs in North America. P.a.auritus of Eurasia differs in its darker and blacker body (largely lacking distinct paler feather edges on the upperparts) and, in breeding plumage, richer buffy-yellow postocular head stripes and darker chestnut (vs. buffy-chestnut) pre-ocular area. In addition, the crown of non-breeding individuals is glossy black in P.a.auritus of Eurasia, but paler and greyer in P.a.cornutus of North America.

This species has potentially hybridized with Eared Grebe, although this is, at best, an extremely rare occurrence.

Source: Stedman (2000)

Status Information

Origin StatusProvincial StatusBC List
(Red Blue List)
NativeS4B, SNRNYellowSC (Apr 2009)
BC Ministry of Environment: BC Species and Ecosystems Explorer--the authoritative source for conservation information in British Columbia.

Additional Range and Status Information Links

Additional Photo Sources

General References

Recommended citation: Author, Date. Page title. In Klinkenberg, Brian. (Editor) 2021. E-Fauna BC: Electronic Atlas of the Fauna of British Columbia [efauna.bc.ca]. Lab for Advanced Spatial Analysis, Department of Geography, University of British Columbia, Vancouver. [Accessed: 2023-09-24 12:59:35 PM]
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