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Victorian milliners almost killed off the Great Crested Grebe

Posted in Animals, Birds, Nature, Wildlife on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

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This edited article about birds first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 599 published on 7 July 1973.

Great Crested Grebe,  picture, image, illustration

Great Crested Grebe by R B Davis

With so many of our native birds declining in numbers and some even disappearing altogether, it is good to know that at least one species is on the increase. One hundred years ago the Great Crested Grebe was in danger of extinction, chiefly because it was the fashion in Victorian times for ladies to wear hats that had been trimmed with grebe “fur.” Towards the end of the last century the number of breeding pairs of these birds was estimated at less than 50. Today, nearly every large sheet of fresh water supports at least one pair of these attractive birds.

Grebes are expert divers and can stay underwater for a considerable time while they feed on small fish, weed and water insects. The courtship display of these birds is unusual. Sometimes a pair face each other, with “ears” held erect and ruffs spread out, and then solemnly shake their heads from side to side or rise up in the water breast to breast and present each other with bits of water weed. This kind of courtship takes place at most times of the year but, in spring, leads to the building of a nest, a floating mound of dead reeds and water plants among the reeds in shallow water.

The three to five eggs laid from April onwards, are white, but on leaving the nest the parents cover them with weeds and this makes them a dirty colour. The chicks have attractive black and white stripes and are often carried on the backs of their parents, sometimes concealed among the feathers with only their heads poking out.

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