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1 October 2005 The Grebes: Podicipedidae
Gary L. Nuechterlein
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The following critiques express the opinions of the individual evaluators regarding the strengths, weaknesses, and value of the books they review. As such, the appraisals are subjective assessments and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or any official policy of the American Ornithologists’ Union.

Jon Fjeldsâ; illustrated by Jon Fjeldsâ. 2004. Oxford University Press, New York. xvii + 246 pp., 8 color plates, text illustrations, maps. ISBN 0-19-850064-5. Cloth, $179.50.—Grebes are an intriguing group of waterbirds whose natural history seems to be replete with unique and strange behavior. In many grebe species, court- ship consists of a spectacular series of stereo- typed displays that are organized into elaborate sequences or ceremonies that have spurred much interest in the family. In the early 1900s, two British scientists, Edmund Selous and then Julian Huxley, wrote a series of scientific papers describing the courtship display sequences of the Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus). These and the later studies by K.E.L. Simmons became classic works read by a wide audience of both amateur birdwatchers and scientists. In Great Britain, the Great Crested Grebe became a household name, and many credit these early papers with helping to launch the modern scientific study of avian display behavior.

John Fjeldsâ’s new book is the first authoritative volume devoted to the biology, phylogeny, and conservation of the 22 recent species of grebes of the world and is part of the renowned Bird Families of the World series of Oxford University Press. I first met John Fjeldsâ by chance in southern Patagonia, Argentina, on the shores of a small lake where a newly discovered grebe species, the Hooded Grebe (P. gallardoi), happened to be located. As he approached across the barren landscape, introduced him- self, and sat down beside me to watch the only known breeding population in the world, I quickly realized that we shared the same enthusiastic fascination with this group. But while I sat laboriously taking notes and photographing the displays, he was able to take things one step further by adding to his notebook field sketches that portrayed what we were seeing.

In this book, we are treated to numerous such sketches that accurately illustrate many of the behavioral quirks of grebes, some of which are nearly impossible to capture on film. These line drawings are like hors d’oeuvres, lavishly served throughout the pages of the book to both enlighten and entertain us. For example, one sketch shows how grebes carry young on their back and feed them feathers taken from their flanks or breast. Another shows how the grebes’ lobed feet travel in a nearly circular pattern when they dive underwater, with the toes folded and rotated to decrease water resistance on the backstroke. In the chapter on communication and behavior, courtship behavior sequences for several representative species are illustrated in stop-frame manner. There is an illustration showing how a Great Crested Grebe swallows a large fish head-first, and another showing how many smaller grebe species often sunbathe by raising their wings and back feathers to expose the underlying pigmented skin. Fjeldsâ’s sketches allow us to see postures from viewpoints rarely seen in the field. For example, one illustration shows how a grebe resting on the water in “pork-pie attitude“ ships one leg under a wing and tucks in its bill beside the neck, as viewed from directly above. No detail is spared. (Just in case you were wondering: apparently, it is most often the right foot that is shipped; the bill is then usually tucked in on the same side of the neck as the shipped leg.)

Fjeldsâ’s skills as a scientific illustrator also enhance the anatomical figures that compare bone, muscle, and feather structure. Finally, there is a series of color plates illustrating the breeding plumages, nonbreeding plumages, and unusual downy-young plumage patterns of all 22 species. These are the best illustrations of the group that I know of, which is a tribute both to his skills as an artist and his deep knowledge of the group. There are also several beautifully reproduced photographic color plates showing both the habitats of grebes and some of their extravagant courtship displays.

The book is divided into three parts. Part I consists of four general chapters that serve to introduce the family Podicipedidae to the reader, including a discussion of the physiological constraints on diving birds and how these relate to the morphology of grebes and other diving birds. Part II includes seven thematic chapters covering the biogeography, ecology, behavior, life history, and conservation of grebes. Part III begins with a chapter that reviews the taxonomy of grebes and presents a new phylogenetic analysis based on 80 morphological characters. This is followed by the 22 individual species accounts. These accounts include nomenclature, physical description, voice, geographic range, conservation status, habitat, feeding and general habits, courtship, and breeding behavior. Two appendices provide a description and matrix of the 80 character states used in the phylogenetic analysis.

The book includes a special illustrated chapter that compares the courtship displays of grebes. Grouping the illustrations of display sequences together into one chapter enables the reader to easily make comparisons between the displays of the various species. However, herein lies my only real complaint with the format of the book. Later, in the species accounts, most displays are not illustrated again or described except by name. This makes it difficult for readers unfamiliar with them to read the account of a species and easily visualize the displays without jumping back to that chapter to search for their illustrations. Because the comparative chapter is not meant to be comprehensive for all 22 species, it was difficult to know if an illustration existed. In the accounts, I also would have liked to see spectrograms included for at least the primary advertising or territorial calls of each species (rather than simply referring to sources that contain them), but that may only reflect my own bias toward bird vocalizations.

Fjeldsâ states that the book is intended to “provide the reader with a general overview of the results of research that has been done on grebes, and to direct him or her to the primary literature.“ In this aim he has succeeded admirably. I can think of no other book that I would rather hand to a new graduate student wanting to work on grebes. Fjeldsâ makes a special attempt to bring to light some of the less-well- known regional studies and studies written in languages other than English, and he has managed to accurately reflect the salient conclusions of a remarkably diverse cross-section of the grebe literature. After reading his reference to an obscure 1954 article, I could not help but wonder if it might hold the key to answering a question I have long pondered. Why are grebes, among all the waterbirds, so difficult to maintain in captive environments? The critical problem reported always seems to be the same: wet feathers and loss of waterproofing. But why should captive grebes be especially prone to this problem? I still do not know the answer, but Fjeldsâ reviews at least two unusual characteristics of grebes that might relate to the question: (1) they have an unusual oil-gland secretion that is paraffin-based, and (2) their belly feathers have a unique coil of flattened and twisted barbules that wicks water into the outer portion of the feather. This is believed to reduce turbulent flow and drag when diving, but might this system also allow water to penetrate to the skin if water conditions in the pen are not just right?

Throughout the book, there is an emphasis on conservation, which is important because we have already tragically lost several members of this small family in the past 30 years. Besides loss of habitat, unregulated use of underwater gill nets for fishing emerges as a possible major mortality threat to grebes and other diving birds. Losses are hard to quantify, but Fjeldsâ’s literature review suggests that increased fatalities of adults may be putting the final nail in the coffin of many grebe populations found in countries where gill-netting is proliferating.

In sum, this book is an attractive volume that should prove an extremely valuable resource for any college or university library. The bibliography itself is a goldmine that includes many papers rarely cited elsewhere. The Grebes should also be on the shelf of any professional or amateur ornithologist contemplating work on grebes. Finally, the book should also be of interest to birders who just want to know more about this unique and fascinating family of birds.

Gary L. Nuechterlein "The Grebes: Podicipedidae," The Auk 122(4), 1301-1303, (1 October 2005).[1301:TGP]2.0.CO;2
Published: 1 October 2005
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