Western Grebes “Foot Shipping”

One of the more unusual bird behaviors I’ve photographed is “foot shipping” in Western Grebes. In fact I’d say it borders on the bizarre.


Yesterday morning I photographed this adult Western Grebe with its leg and foot in the air. Even though I see them do this often I still think it’s a very strange behavior. This image grabbed my attention because of another of those “little things” that often catch my eye. In this case it’s the similar position and angle of the raised wing and raised foot that is repeated in the reflection.

As we’ll soon see there’s good reason for both the elevated foot and the raised wing.

Seeing and photographing the behavior reminded me that it’s been almost exactly 5 years since I explained to blog readers what’s going on here and the reason for it. Knowing that most current readers haven’t seen that post I decided to rerun it below. The following post and information was published on October 7, 2012 but for this version I’ve rewritten much of the text and cleaned up the formatting.



Anyone who has spent much time observing Western Grebes (or their close relatives, Clark’s Grebes) has likely observed this curious behavior more than once. But before I illustrate and explain why they do it a little background is in order.

Grebes are unique to most other water birds in two ways that are related to the behavior: 1.) their legs are attached to their bodies at the rear, rather than underneath and 2.) the toes of grebes are lobed instead of webbed.

Having legs attached at the rear allows for efficient swimming but causes extreme clumsiness on land so they rarely venture onto land and when they do they often fall down after just a few steps. They literally can’t walk. This leg attachment position is so distinctive of grebes that the genus name of four of the North American grebe species is Podiceps (from “podicis” meaning anus or vent and “pes” meaning foot) – in other words, “anus foot” (and yes, I’m having a hard time resisting a joke line or two with that phrase…)

Recent experimental work with grebes has demonstrated that the lobes on the toes function much like the hydrofoil blades of a propeller but that discussion will have to wait for another day.

Ok, with that background covered, on to this strange behavioral quirk of the Western Grebe.



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Without warning, and for no apparent reason, they often stick one of their legs and a weird-looking foot out behind them (which I think looks pretty silly).



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Sometimes they’ll do a simultaneous wing stretch, but only rarely.



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Occasionally they’ll hold the foot high in the air for quite a while and that can look even sillier.



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Even the chicks do it.



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But typically they only leave the foot behind them for a few seconds, usually shaking it as you can see here from the tiny water droplets flying through the air and hitting the water…



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and then they either tuck the leg and foot under a wing (most common by far) or lay them across the top of their back. Obviously this contortionist maneuver would be impossible if the legs were attached in the “normal” position beneath the body. Just imagine a duck trying to accomplish this neat trick.

Over the years I’ve seen grebes do this many hundreds of times and never understood it, so recently I did some research. It turns out that this behavior helps to prevent body heat from being lost to the water from that huge foot that almost acts as a radiator. They stick the foot back behind them, shake the water off, then place it under the wing to warm it and prevent further heat loss. Sometimes on sunny days they leave the foot on top of their back (rather than beneath a wing) to absorb the heat from the sun.

Bird behaviorists even have a name for the maneuver – it’s called “foot-shipping“ (one definition of shipping is “to put in place for use”).



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Here’s a look at a grebe through the entire process of “shipping” its foot. The wing is raised, the foot and leg come over the top of the body from behind…



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and are neatly tucked under the wing before the wing returns to its normal position.



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And literally a split-second later you’d never know that the leg and foot are under the wing.

This all happens very fast.  I doubt most folks notice the foot going under the wing and once it’s there you’d simply assume both legs are in the water below and behind the bird again. And they’re very good at paddling with only one foot which is what they’re often doing when they aren’t fishing or doing something else active.

I’m delighted to have finally learned the answer to this little mystery that has befuddled me for so long and I thought some of my readers might be interested in what I found.

I’d always assumed it was some form of bizarre leg stretch but once again making an assumption turned out to be a big mistake.





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