Bird O'clock

The Rare and Remarkable Atitlan Grebe: A Unique Bird on the Edge of Extinction

The Atitlan Grebe, also known as Podilymbus gigas, is a bird species that is native to the lake of Atitlan in Guatemala. This bird is one of the rarest birds in the world.

In this article, we will explore the identification of the atitlan grebe. We will also discuss its plumages, molts, and other key characteristics that make it unique.


The Atitlan Grebe is a medium-sized bird that measures around 30 cm in length. It has a distinctive black and white plumage, with a dark grey head, neck, and back.

The underparts are white, and the wings are black with white secondary feathers. The bill is grey and the legs are brownish-red.



Atitlan Grebes are usually found in freshwater lakes, marshes, and rivers. They are strong swimmers and divers, but they are unable to fly.

One of the distinct features of the Atitlan Grebe is its incredible swimming ability. Unlike most other birds, it swims by propelling itself under the water, using its wings as paddles.

Similar Species

One of the most common birds that are confused with Atitlan Grebes is the Western Grebe. The Western Grebe is a similar size, and it also has a black and white plumage.

However, the Western Grebe is found in saltwater environments and has a longer, thinner neck.


Atitlan Grebes have two distinct plumages. Juvenile Atitlan Grebes have a brownish-grey plumage, with white underparts.

The second plumage is the adult plumage, which is mostly black and white, with a dark grey head and neck.


Atitlan Grebes also have two molts. The first molt takes place in the first few months of life when they develop their juvenile plumage.

The second molt occurs when they are around 10 months old, and this is when they develop their adult plumage. During the molting period, the Atitlan Grebe cannot fly, which makes it vulnerable to predators.


The Atitlan Grebe is a unique bird species that is unfortunately on the brink of extinction. Its distinctive black and white plumage, as well as its advanced swimming ability, make it a remarkable species to observe.

By learning more about the Atitlan Grebe, we can raise awareness about the importance of conservation efforts to protect this endangered bird.

Systematics History

The Systematics history of birds has been a journey of discovery, and finding what makes each species unique. The Atitlan Grebe, also known as Podilymbus gigas, has been a challenging bird to study given their small and isolated populations.

Nonetheless, researchers have been able to determine that these birds belong to the family of rails and coots, the Rallidae family. The Atitlan Grebe is a species that has fascinated ornithologists and bird enthusiasts around the world.

In this article, we will look at the Systematics history of the Atitlan Grebe by exploring its geographic variation, subspecies, and related species. We will also examine the changes in distribution that have occurred throughout history.

Geographic Variation

The Atitlan Grebe is an endemic species to Atitlan Lake, Guatemala, and is considered one of the rarest birds in the world. Unfortunately, the distribution of this species has been severely impacted by human activity.

In the past, the Atitlan Grebe used to occupy a much larger geographic range. Their range extended North towards the Valley of Mexico, Central America and towards the Caribbean coast.

However, due to human interference and habitat destruction, only Lake Atitlan remains as a suitable habitat for this bird.


There is only one recognized subspecies of the Atitlan Grebe, which is Podilymbus gigas. Within this subspecies, there is variation in the morphology of the grebe, but this is thought to be a result of natural selection rather than due to any genetic differences.

Related Species

The Atitlan Grebe is closely related to the other species within the Podilymbus genus, which are the least grebe and the pied-billed grebe. The least grebe is a small grebe that is found in parts of North, Central and South America, while the pied-billed grebe is a widespread species that is found throughout the Americas.

Historical Changes to Distribution

The Atitlan Grebe was once found in a much larger geographic range than it is today. The species used to occur in many rivers and lakes throughout Mexico and Central America, including Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador.

However, due to habitat destruction, water pollution, and overfishing, the distribution of this species has been greatly reduced. By the 1980s, the Atitlan Grebe was only found in a single lake at Lake Atitlan in Guatemala.

The reason for the decline in the Atitlan Grebe population is also due to the introduction of non-native predatory fish in the lake. Fish such as tilapia, carp and bass were introduced as a part of a conservation project to create a food source for people around the lake.

However, these fish species begun to consume the Atitlan Grebe’s food and prey on the young of the bird instead.

A severe hurricane in 2005, washed up tons of sediment material along with pollutants and waste, from the surrounding area, into the Lake.

This year marked a dark milestone for the species, as it was feared that the entire population of Atitlan Grebe had vanished. The survivors are now in grave danger, as their population is now estimated to be less than 50 individuals, which makes them one of the rarest birds in the world.

Promising rescue efforts and conservation programs are now in place towards saving the Atitlan Grebe from extinction.


In conclusion, the Atitlan Grebe is a unique and rare bird species. Unfortunately, due to human activity and habitat destruction, the distribution of this bird has been greatly reduced over time.

Nonetheless, work is being done to preserve this species and protect its habitat from further damage. By understanding the Systematics history of the Atitlan Grebe and its related species, we can gain a better appreciation of this remarkable bird and take steps to ensure its survival.


The Atitlan Grebe, also known as Podilymbus gigas, is an aquatic bird species that is found in freshwater habitats. Specifically, the Atitlan Grebe is endemic to Atitlan Lake in Guatemala, where it occupies the shallow shorelines of the lake.

This species can also be found in marshes and rivers near the lake. While the Atitlan Grebe’s habitat is currently restricted, historically, it was found in rivers and lakes throughout Mexico and Central America.

The Atitlan Grebe prefers to reside in areas that have dense aquatic vegetation, which provides cover and protection as well as a suitable habitat for its prey.

Movements and Migration

The Atitlan Grebe is a non-migratory species, meaning it does not undertake any long-distance movements or migrations. In fact, it is incapable of flight, which makes the lake its home all year around.

This aquatic bird is an excellent swimmer, capable of diving to considerable depths whilst hunting for its prey. Given that this bird species is confined to a specific habitat in Atitlan Lake, it is vulnerable to environmental disturbances, which can affect its behavior.

For this reason, it is crucial that conservation efforts are prioritized to maintain the habitat of the Atitlan Grebe. As earlier mentioned, due to overfishing and habitat destruction, the Atitlan Grebe has been labelled as one of the rarest birds in the world.

However, with the wildfire conservation efforts in place, some measures have been established to safeguard the species. These conservation measures have also allowed us to learn more about these incredible birds.

Researchers have pointed out that when feeling threatened or during nesting time, these birds engage in what is known as a “whirlpool” behavior. This action involves circling in the water to create a current that spirals inwards, resulting in water rushing into the center, creating a vortex that lifts the bird out of the water.

This action can be seen as a protective mechanism against predators as it makes it difficult for them to prey on these birds. Conservation efforts have been largely successful in safeguarding Atitlan Grebes in the last decade.

Measures such as habitat protection, anti-poaching laws, and predator management have helped to stabilize the population of these aquatic birds. A recovery program for the Atitlan Grebe by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has been in progress since 2006, which involves the creation of artificial floating platforms to provide safe nesting sites within the bird’s habitat.

In conclusion, the Atitlan Grebe, an aquatic bird species, is found near the shores of Atitlan Lake, Guatemala, is adapted to life in freshwater habitats. As a non-migratory bird, movement and migration pose little effect on habitat conservation, which has been safeguarded by environmentalists and conservationists around the world.

The bird has been categorized as one of the rarest in the world, and with measures in place, a possible rise in their population could occur in the future.

Diet and Foraging


The Atitlan Grebe, or Podilymbus gigas, is a carnivorous bird that has adapted to live and feed on freshwater habitats. Atitlan Grebes use their strong, paddle-like wings to swim and dive underwater, where they hunt for their prey.

Unlike other grebe species, the Atitlan Grebe primarily feeds on invertebrates and fish, which are found in the shallow areas of Atitlan Lake.


The diet of the Atitlan Grebe consists of a variety of aquatic invertebrates, including crustaceans, insects, and mollusks. They also feed on small fish, especially those within the species of the cichlid family.

The Atitlan Grebe is known to feed throughout the day, but the majority of its feeding activity takes place early in the morning and late in the afternoon.

Metabolism and Temperature Regulation

Atitlan Grebes have a high metabolism, and they require a lot of energy to maintain their body temperature. Being a warm-blooded creature, the Atitlan Grebe’s body maintains a high and stable temperature, which requires a lot of continual energy.

The high metabolism makes the Atitlan Grebe prone to starvation, which can have severe consequences during winter months when prey is scarce.

To regulate its temperature, the Atitlan Grebe has a number of biological adaptations.

These include a high metabolic rate, a thick layer of downy feathers, and a counter-current heat exchange system. The counter-current system allows blood to flow through its long legs and conserve heat from internal organs, which will cause cooling in the colder areas.

Sounds and Vocal Behavior


The Atitlan Grebe has a distinctive vocalization given its solitary lifestyle and small populations. It is known to communicate through a variety of calls, which is attributed mostly to contact calls between partners.

Typically, the Atitlan Grebe issues a trilled call that builds in volume and fades away over a period, forming part of its breeding behaviour. Similar to other grebe species, individuals of the Atitlan Grebe produce soft clucking vocalization throughout the nesting and rearing period.

Owing to their low populations, research on these aquatic birds’ vocalization pattern is limited. However, recent studies suggest that vocal behavior could be useful in assessing the grebe’s social dynamics.

The Atitlan Grebe is potentially the rarest bird in the world, and it requires all efforts geared towards wildlife conservation efforts. Its vocal behavior could serve as a tool in understanding and monitoring changes that can affect the survival of the few surviving populations.

Monitoring vocal behavior could help implement programs that would generate stable conditions required for breeding and maintaining these unique bird populations.


In conclusion, the Atitlan Grebe is a solitary aquatic bird species that has adapted to feed on freshwater habitats. The unique physiology and diet of the Atitlan Grebe are suited to surviving in the shallow waters of the lake, and it maintains a high metabolism to regulate its body temperature.

The Atitlan Grebe has a distinctive vocalization pattern that suggests that it plays a crucial role in establishing social dynamics, and it could potentially serve as a useful monitoring tool to safeguard the remaining bird populations.



As a highly aquatic bird, the Atitlan Grebe swims and dives underwater to hunt and feed. They use their wings as paddles to propel themselves forward through the water while searching for their prey.

When they need to dive, they will tuck their wings close to their body and descend to the water’s bottom level. During their dive, their eyes are wide open, allowing them to spot and seize prey.

Self Maintenance

Atitlan Grebes are relatively solitary birds and are known for preening frequently to maintain their feathers’ health and appearance. Preening is a behavior unique to birds and is often performed by wading or floating in the water and snipping away any loose feathers or debris from their feathers.

Agonistic Behavior

Due to their solitary lifestyle, Atitlan Grebes are known to exhibit aggressive behavior towards conspecifics. This behavior is often defensive, with the bird using their wings to slap and hit the rival.

Territorial aggression is also observed between breeding pairs during nesting season, particularly against predators, which can threaten the survival of their offspring.

Sexual Behavior

Males and females Atitlan Grebes exhibit only minor physical differences, with males often being slightly larger. During courtship, males employ displays, such as head bobbing, bill fencing, ruffle-flapping, in conjunction with vocalizations, to attract potential female mates.

The male will also repeatedly touch the female’s neck and bill, a behavior that leads to courtship and then reproductive success.


Atitlan Grebes breed during the rainy season, from May to August. During breeding season, these birds build floating nests anchored to plants in shallow waters.

Nests are made up of a mixture of dried leaves, stems and debris from the surrounding area. Typically, females lay between 1-3 eggs that incubate between 25 to 29 days, with both parents taking turns in incubating the eggs.

Chicks develop quickly enough, and by seven to ten days they are already strong enough to dive underwater to catch prey.

Demography and Populations

The Atitlan Grebe is one of the rarest birds in the world, with fewer than 50 individuals thought to remain in the wild. The population crashed following the introduction of non-native predatory fish and habitat destruction.

These birds have adapted solely to their habitat, making them vulnerable to environmental disturbances and the introduction of invasive species. Conservation efforts to safeguard the Atitlan Grebe have focused on monitoring and protection.

The creation of artificial floating platforms as nest sites proved successful as a conservation tool, with more and more breeding pairs recorded each year. Conservation efforts towards this bird have been largely successful and can be appealing to wildlife enthusiasts for years to come.

In conclusion, the Atitlan Grebe is an aquatic bird species that has adapted to life in freshwater habitats. They swim, dive, and feed underwater, exhibiting behaviors such as preening, territoriality, courtship, and breeding.

With an endangered status, their breeding sites are often monitored using artificial floating platforms. Despite their population being critically low, there is still opportunity to grow the population through well-coordinated conservation efforts.

It is essential that we take effective measures to protect and conserve their habitat to ensure that these unique birds can survive and flourish. In conclusion, the Atitlan Grebe is a remarkable bird species that has adapted to living in freshwater habitats.

This aquatic bird has unique physical and behavioral characteristics that have made it well-suited to life in the shallow waters of Atitlan Lake in Guatemala. Their endangered status highlights the importance of conserving habitats, identifying threats to the populations, and developing successful conservation strategies to prevent extinction.

With continued conservation efforts and initiatives towards sustainability, we could conserve this species or perhaps even see an increase in its population. Such success in conservation stories would be a tribute to the work of conservationists, caretakers, and researchers alike.

The plight of the Atitlan Grebe highlights the urgent need for a more coordinated and globally relevant approach to conservation efforts, to safeguard species threatened with extinction, for the future of our planet.

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