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the web of life in southern Africa

Tachybaptus ruficollis (Little grebe, Dabchick)

Kleindobbertjie [Afrikaans]; Unolwilwilwi, Unonyamembi [Xhosa]; Thoboloko [South Sotho]; Dodaars [Dutch]; Grèbe castagneux [French]; Zwergtaucher [German]; Mergulhão-pequeno [Portuguese]

Life > Eukaryotes > Opisthokonta > Metazoa (animals) > Bilateria > Deuterostomia > Chordata > Craniata > Vertebrata (vertebrates)  > Gnathostomata (jawed vertebrates) > Teleostomi (teleost fish) > Osteichthyes (bony fish) > Class: Sarcopterygii (lobe-finned fish) > Stegocephalia (terrestrial vertebrates) > Tetrapoda (four-legged vertebrates) > Reptiliomorpha > Amniota > Reptilia (reptiles) > Romeriida > Diapsida > Archosauromorpha > Archosauria > Dinosauria (dinosaurs) > Saurischia > Theropoda (bipedal predatory dinosaurs) > Coelurosauria > Maniraptora > Aves (birds) > Order: Ciconiiformes  > Family: Podicipedidae

Tachybaptus ruficollis (Little grebe, Dabchick) Tachybaptus ruficollis (Little grebe, Dabchick)

Little grebe. [photo Johan van Rensburg ©]

Little grebe, South Africa. [photo Callie de Wet ©]

Distribution and habitat

Occurs in Eurasia, the west Pacific islands, South-east Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. In southern Africa, it is common to locally abundant across much of the region, largely excluding the Kalahari. It generally prefers dams, lakes, small ponds, backwaters in sluggish watercourses and temporary pans, occasionally moving away from fresh water to saltpans and estuaries.

Distribution of Little grebe in southern Africa, based on statistical smoothing of the records from first SA Bird Atlas Project (© Animal Demography unit, University of Cape Town; smoothing by Birgit Erni and Francesca Little). Colours range from dark blue (most common) through to yellow (least common). See here for the latest distribution from the SABAP2.  

Predators and parasites

Movements and migrations

Generally resident, although it often moves into seasonally flooded areas in the breeding season. It has an uncanny ability to locate isolated oases, rapidly colonising new dams in arid areas.


It mainly eats fish and other aquatic animals, caught by diving in stints of up to 50 seconds underwater. It often associates with ducks and Hippopotamuses (Hippopotamus amphbius), catching the aquatic life that they disturb. Like other grebes it sometimes eats its own feathers as they act as a protective wrapping for fish bones, protecting the bird from harm when it regurgitates pellets. The following food items have been recorded in its diet:

  • Vertebrates
    • small fish
    • frogs and tadpoles
  • Invertebrates
    • aquatic insects
    • small crustaceans
    • molluscs


  • Monogamous, territorial solitary nester, performing a variety of elaborate courtship displays.
  • The nest (see image below) is built by both sexes and maintained throughout the incubation period, consisting of a floating platform of water plants. This structure is usually anchored on a submerged plant in open water, or effectively concealed among reeds.
Tachybaptus ruficollis (Little grebe, Dabchick)  

Little grebe on nest. [photo Peter Steyn ©]

  • Egg-laying season is year-round, peaking from August-February in Botswana and the Western Cape, and from February-June elsewhere.
  • It lays 2-9 eggs, which are incubated by both sexes for about 19-28 days.
  • The chicks leave the nest within a few hours after hatching, after which they join the adults to form a family group, regularly climbing onto a parent's back to rest. At first, the adults feed them on a diet of tadpoles and insect larvae, but after 29 days or so they are encouraged to try foraging for themselves, which they can do competently a few days later. They become fully independent at approximately 42 days old and are fully grown eight days later.


Not threatened, in fact its population has increased considerably due to the introduction of farm dams and other man-made impoundments.


  • Hockey PAR, Dean WRJ and Ryan PG 2005. Roberts - Birds of southern Africa, VIIth ed. The Trustees of the John Voelcker Bird Book Fund, Cape Town.