One Tenacious Grebe
How long can a bird survive in a small hole in the ice?
Text and Photography by Bill Marchel
It was early December, and I was on my way to a favorite stand to bowhunt deer when I made an odd discovery. Crossing sturdy ice on a pond, I noticed a small hole. As I approached, I saw a brown animal submerge. Curious, I crouched down about 20 feet from the opening and watched. Within seconds, up popped the head of a ducklike bird. I immediately recognized it as a pied-billed grebe, a bird that should have flown south months earlier. But that seemed impossible. How could the grebe have survived in the 8-inch hole, since ice had covered the pond at least three weeks earlier? Why, if the grebe was healthy, had it not migrated?
Questions rushed through my mind. Tracks in the snow indicated two coyotes and a bobcat had waited near the opening for the grebe to surface. Yet the grebe had eluded the predators. How was the grebe able to catch minnows and still return to the hole for a breath of air? How much effort did it take for the grebe to keep the opening free of ice on nights when temperatures dropped below zero?
Because grebes must run on the water prior to takeoff, I knew the tenacious grebe was destined to an icy grave unless I stepped in. I had a plan.
A few minutes later, I returned to the hole with a length of cord. I fashioned a slip noose on one end and approached the hole. The grebe dove. I carefully laid the noose around the hole and, with cord in hand, backed off about 20 feet. I knelt on the ice and waited for the grebe to reappear.
About 30 seconds later, the bird's head emerged. I remained still. In a few seconds, the grebe cautiously stretched its neck and head above the ice. Now! I pulled the cord. In an instant the grebe popped out of the hole and onto the ice.
I gathered the grebe in my arms and stood for a minute, staring at the small opening and contemplating the many perils the little bird must have faced during the past three weeks. As I turned to walk away, I noticed a thin layer of ice had already formed.
The next day I drove the grebe to the Wild and Free Wildlife Rehabilitation Program at the Garrison Animal Hospital. Executive director and veterinarian Deb Eskedahl examined the bird and found no injuries. She placed the bird in a tub of water and put it in a large cage. "I'll go to the bait shop and buy some minnows," she said.
One month later, Eskedahl told me the grebe was doing great: "It's catching live minnows on its own and is able to climb in and out of the tub of water."
The grebe grew larger and stronger and was eventually transported to Oklahoma, where it was released back into the wild.
Usually it is best for us humans not to interfere with nature. But in the case of the grebe, I was struck by the bird's incredible will to survive, and so I stepped in.
Bill Marchel is a freelance wildlife and outdoors photographer and writer from Fort Ripley. Reach him at www.Billmarchel.com.