Breeding Bird Atlas 2 Species Accounts

Pied-billed Grebe

Podilymbus podiceps

  • Very local and likely increasing
  • Action/monitoring needed
  • Endangered Species
 “The wings of Time are black and white, / Pied with morning and with night.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson, Compensation

This nocturnal migrant is commonly seen floating in small groups when stopping over during migration, yet it is secretive when breeding. Pied-billed Grebes are marsh specialists that have declined statewide as wetlands have given way to development. Indeed, the Pied-billed Grebe is listed as an Endangered Species in the Commonwealth. Massachusetts wetlands are now protected by law, but will this be enough to save our state’s only breeding grebe species from becoming just another memory, or will Pied-billed Grebes be swept up by the “pied wings of Time”?

Historic Status

Already beset by attacks from hawks above and snapping turtles below, Pied-billed Grebes historically found their worst enemy in Massachusetts to be humanity. A freshwater marsh nester, the Pied-billed Grebe suffered from extensive habitat loss during the eighteenth century, when beavers were extirpated and farmers ploughed under wetlands for the creation of arable land. Moreover, Forbush claimed that “in the old days of flintlock guns the bird dived at the flash in the pan and eluded the shot,” (Forbush 1925) but as weapons technologically improved, grebes lost their edge, and oftentimes their lives. Brewster reported Pied-billed Grebes thriving at Great Meadows in Concord in the 1890s (Bent 1919) but elsewhere in the state their population declined dramatically as they were wantonly hunted.

Atlas 1 Distribution

By the time of Atlas 1, Pied-billed Grebes continued to breed in a few isolated areas in the Berkshire Highlands and Marble Valleys, but other than that no grebes were found anywhere in the western half of the state. The birds were similarly sparsely distributed in the east, with the Coastal Plains having the largest number of occupied blocks (6), fully half of which were accounted for by Parker River National Wildlife Refuge and surrounding environs. A small handful of blocks in the Bristol/Narragansett Lowlands and Cape Cod completed the picture of a species much reduced from historic levels.

Atlas 2 Distribution and Change

There seems to be little obvious logic behind the erratic nesting habits of Pied-billed Grebes in Massachusetts, at least as reflected in the maps comparing Atlas 1 to Atlas 2. Since grebes seem to be heavily dependent on protected wetlands, one would expect that stricter wetland protection and the species’ listing as Endangered in Massachusetts would have allowed the grebe to rebound. Instead, grebes appear to be in roughly the same number of occupied blocks that existed thirty years ago, although in different locations. The species’ lack of persistence at most sites is troubling and makes recovery and monitoring especially difficult.


Atlas 1 Map

Atlas 2 Map

Atlas Change Map


Ecoregion Data

 Atlas 1Atlas 2Change
Ecoregion# Blocks% Blocks% of Range# Blocks% Blocks% of RangeChange in # BlocksChange in % Blocks
Taconic Mountains00.
Marble Valleys/Housatonic Valley12.67.725.110.012.6
Berkshire Highlands23.615.411.85.0-1-1.9
Lower Berkshire Hills00.
Vermont Piedmont00.
Berkshire Transition00.
Connecticut River Valley00.
Worcester Plateau00.
Lower Worcester Plateau00.00.022.510.011.9
S. New England Coastal Plains and Hills62.246.2113.955.010.4
Boston Basin00.
Bristol and Narragansett Lowlands21.915.410.95.0-2-2.0
Cape Cod and Islands21.515.400.00.0-2-1.7
Statewide Total131.3100.0201.9100.000.0