Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis)

Cover image. Little Grebe by Joanne Putter – Keurboomsrivier, Western Cape – BirdPix No. 224373


The Little Grebe is a small and compact grebe. The breeding adult’s most distinctive features are the dark chestnut on the front and sides of the neck, as well as the pale gape spot at the base of the bill. The bill is dark in colour, and is short and stout. Non-breeding birds are duller and the chestnut on the neck fades to a warm brown colour. The sexes are alike.

Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis) – Darville Bird Sanctuary, KwaZulu-Natal
Photo by Malcolm Robinson

Juveniles are rather striking and have black and white striped heads and necks.

Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis) Juvenile
Near Williston, Northern Cape
Photo by Ryan Tippett

Status and Distribution

The Little Grebe is widely distributed and found virtually throughout Southern Africa. It has a more scattered distribution in arid areas like the Northern Cape, Botswana and Namibia where it is largely restricted to farm dams and other artificial impoundments. It is a common resident with some local movements between suitable habitat. It appears to be most numerous on the higher altitude wetlands of Gauteng, Mpumalanga, the Free State and north-western KwaZulu-Natal.

It has become more abundant as a result of artificial waterbodies and its occurence in southern Namibia and the Karoo is probably recent. The Little Grebe is not considered threatened in Southern Africa.

The subspecies Tachybaptus ruficollis capensis is widely distributed in Africa south of the Sahara and Madagascar, and from the Caucasus Mountains through India to Burma. Another eight subspecies are recognised across the rest of the species’ range in coastal North Africa, Europe, southern Asia as far east as Japan, Malaysia and parts of Indonesia.

SABAP2 distribution map for Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis) – May 2023. Details for map interpretation can be found here.


The Little Grebe is dependant on more permanent waters, such as lakes, pans and dams with emergent vegetation and weedy shores. It also inhabits marshes with sufficient open water and is infrequently observed on slow moving streams and rivers.

It occurs on wetlands in a wide range of vegetation types, and over a wide range of climatic conditions.

Habitat – Wakkerstroom, Mpumalanga
Photo by Ryan Tippett
Habitat – Phongolo Nature Reserve, KwaZulu-Natal
Photo by Ryan Tippett


The Little Grebe is a distinctive and conspicuous species through frequent calling, wing flapping and chasing behaviours. When chasing rivals, or when disturbed, often runs, pattering across water with wings flapping. Such chases may end in noisy calling between 2 or more birds.

Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis)
Near Carnarvon, Northern Cape
Photo by Ryan Tippett

It is usually encountered in pairs or family groups of 5-6 birds when breeding, and in flocks of up to several hundred at other times. Sunbathes frequently on clear, windless days, positioning the body with its back to the sun and feathers raised to expose the darkly pigmented skin.

Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis)
Western Shores, iSimangaliso Wetland Park, KwaZulu-Natal
Photo by Malcolm Robinson

Associates with other aquatic birds like ducks and flamingoes which probably aids it in finding food. The Little Grebe frequently roosts in large, communal rafts at night. Flies after dark to locate new wetland habitats.

Mostly dives for food, but also feeds on insects that have fallen onto the water surface. It may remain underwater for almost a minute during dives. They are known to follow Hippopotamuses (Hippopotamus amphibius) to feed on disturbed aquatic animals. Its diet includes small fish, frogs, tadpoles, aquatic insects and their larvae, as well as small crustaceans and molluscs. As with other grebes, it eats some of its own feathers in order to protect against sharp fish bones. These bones are regurgitated in the form of feather-wrapped pellets.

Breeding has been recorded during all months of the year in Southern Africa. The nest is a floating mound with a cup-like indentation on top. The nest may be anchored to emergent vegetation and is built from various pieces of aquatic plants piled on top of each other. Both sexes get involved in nest construction by pulling plant material to the nest in their bills. Additional plant material is added to the nest throughout the incubation period. The nest is usually located in fairly deep water and the incubating bird often covers the eggs with plant material when leaving the nest.

Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis)
Near Underberg, KwaZulu-Natal
Photo by Pamela Kleiman

From two to seven eggs are laid per clutch and incubation only begins once the clutch is completed. Incubation takes around 20 days and both sexes share incubation duties. Newly hatched chicks are precocial and they leave the nest upon hatching. The young are cared for by both parents and may be carried on the adults back when they are still small.

Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis)
Lusaka, Zambia
Photo by Nico Vromant

Further Resources

Species text adapted from the first Southern African Bird Atlas Project (SABAP1), 1997.

The use of photographs by Joanne Putter, Lappies Labuschagne, Malcolm Robinson, Nico Vromant and Pamela Kleiman is acknowledged.

Virtual Museum (BirdPix > Search VM > By Scientific or Common Name).

Other common names: Dabchick (Alternative English); Kleindobbertjie (Afrikaans): Unonyamembi (Xhosa); Dodaars (Dutch); Grèbe castagneux (French); Zwergtaucher (German); Mergulhão-pequeno (Portuguese)

Recommended citation format: Tippett RM 2023. Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis). Biodiversity and Development Institute. Available Online at

Bird identificationbirding

Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis)
Near Vaalwater, Limpopo
Photo by Lappies Labuschagne
Ryan Tippett
Ryan Tippett
Ryan is an enthusiastic contributor to Citizen Science and has added many important and interesting records of fauna and flora. He has been a member of the Virtual Museum since 2014 and has currently submitted over 12,000 records. He is on the expert identification panel for the OdonataMAP project. Ryan is a well-qualified and experienced Field Guide, and Guide Training Instructor. He has spent the last 18 years in the guiding and tourism industries. Ryan loves imparting his passion and knowledge onto others, and it is this that drew him into guide training in particular. Something that he finds incredibly rewarding is seeing how people he's had the privilege of teaching have developed and gone on to greater things. His interests are diverse and include Dragonflies, Birding, Arachnids, Amphibians, wild flowers and succulents, free diving and experiencing big game on foot. With this range of interests, there is always likely be something special just around the corner!