Great crested grebes are ridiculously good at this
Becky Crew is a Sydney-based science communicator with a love for weird and wonderful animals. From strange behaviours and special adaptations to newly discovered species and the researchers who find them, her topics celebrate how alien yet relatable so many of the creatures that live amongst us can be.
They’re parenting goals, relationship goals, elegant headwear goals. They can fly (kind of) and their body is a boat. They even enjoy a large range, spanning western Europe, the UK, parts of southern and eastern Africa, Australia, and New Zealand.
Even in Australia, great crested grebes (Podiceps cristatus) are found all over, including in coastal Queensland, throughout New South Wales, coastal South Australia, coastal and south-west Western Australia, and in the Northern Territory.
They’re easily identifiable, particularly in the breeding season (August to September in Australia) because they develop that striking burnt-orange plumage on their cheeks and black ‘ear-like’ plumes, as modelled by the lovely female pictured above.
That plumage is worn by both the males and the females, and assists them in their famous ‘wedding dance’, which is used for courtship and to reaffirm their bonds. These are monogamous birds that retain their mates throughout the year.
Their wedding dance involves puffing out their plumage, flicking their heads, preening and bobbing. There’s also the ‘weed dance’, where they will retrieve weeds from under the water to show each other, as an offering for their nest, and the ‘penguin dance’, where both birds will rise up out of the water with their feet paddling vigorously and their breasts touching.
Here’s what their breeding plumage looks like on full display:
And here’s a pair doing the dance:
They typically lay two eggs at a time, and both parents will incubate the eggs and tend to the chicks.
Similar to the jacana, which carries its young under its wings, the great crested grebe parents carry their chicks on their backs, letting them sink down into their soft down for warmth.
You can see them in action here, and it’s just adorable:
What’s amazing about the chicks is, you might have noticed the strange red/pink dots on their heads in the picture at the top of the page and the video above.
According to research by ecologist Gary Nuechterlein, who in 1985 studied western grebes (Aechmophorus occidentalis), a species from North America,the red patches act as a feeding signal.
“Field observations and experiments show that this crown patch flushes to a deep scarlet when a chick is begging for food or is separated temporarily from its parents,” Nuechterlein explains.
“Both satiation of begging chicks and reuniting of lost, peeping chicks restored the patch to its original pale colour within minutes. The crown patch appears to function as a generalized distress signal that indicates to the parents that a particular member of the brood is in need of immediate attention.”
As you can see by the red patch in this picture, that great crested grebe parent arrived with a snack not a moment too soon: