by Charlotte Owen
The great crested grebe cannot fail to draw attention with its flamboyant breeding plumage and balletic courtship displays. But such conspicuous beauty was almost the cause of its demise in Britain, and this species has a chequered and fascinating past full of ‘firsts’.
Perhaps most impressively, the great crested grebe inadvertently spurred the birth of the British conservation movement when it was hunted almost out of existence to satisfy feather-hungry Victorian fashionistas. The grebe’s russet-red neck feathers and impressive black ‘ear’ tufts were destined to trim hats and bonnets, while their thickly-feathered skin was turned into a novelty fabric known as ‘grebe fur’ to adorn women’s clothing. Grebes were killed in their thousands to fuel this lucrative trade and with the added pressure of nest-plundering egg collectors, the population crashed dramatically to just 50 breeding pairs in 1860. On the brink of extinction, its plight did not go unnoticed and urgent campaigning led to the eventual introduction of the Wild Birds Protection Act in 1880, and the dawn of a new age of conservation-minded thinking.
As the grebe population started to recover, attention shifted to its elaborate aquatic courtship dance. This was first described in detail by the ornithologist Julian Huxley in 1914, and his ground-breaking paper helped to pioneer the field of animal behaviour. Huxley named and explained the various elements of the birds’ ritualistic mating display, which had often been observed but wasn’t yet fully understood. A grebe rearing up out of the water with its neck arched downwards is performing the ‘ghostly penguin’ to declare itself to a potential mate, who will hopefully respond with a ‘cat’ display, with half-opened wings, ruffled feathers and extended cheek frills. This is followed by bob-preening, head-shaking and ultimately the famous ‘weed dance’ where both birds gather a bill-full of greenery before rearing up to meet breast-to-breast, paddling wildly to maintain balance.
By the 1930s, the grebe population had “increased to an extraordinary extent” thanks to the enlightened efforts of early conservationists, who were now interested in the “innumerable repercussions involved in the increase of one species.” These are direct quotes from The Great Crested Grebe Enquiry of 1931, one of the first national censuses to be conducted for a single species. More than a thousand volunteers took part and recorded 1,200 pairs. Today, there are around 12,000 – a real conservation success.