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Responding to 'grebe-a-geddon,' volunteers rescue birds making emergency snow landings in central PA

Three grebes in a blue towel.
Faith De Boef/Michael Kensinger
Centre Wildlife Care
A few of the grebes volunteers and Centre Wildlife Care rescued after the birds made emergency landings in snowy weather in January 2024 in central Pennsylvania.

After snowy weather hit central Pennsylvania on Jan. 16, many horned grebes and other birds were stranded after making emergency landings, but a team of wildlife experts and volunteers stepped in and responded to the “grebe-a-geddon.”

"We've seen this phenomenon happen in the past with loons and grebes with rainstorms because they're nocturnal migrators. And they think that parking lots and roads are bodies of water, and they'll land and then they get grounded because they can't take off flying from a flat surface," explained Robyn Graboski, executive director and founder of Centre Wildlife Care, a nonprofit wildlife rescue operation based in Centre County.

In this case, it was a snowstorm that brought the birds down. The problem is these birds need a body of water to take off again.

“They're designed for diving and swimming under the water. And so you know, so because they eat fish, they cannot stand on land and they can't walk on land and they can't take off flying on land. So when they get grounded, they really are a sitting duck," Graboski said.

Even though, Graboski noted, grebes are not ducks.

Centre Wildlife’s phone started ringing when at least 20 of the birds landed during that recent snow storm. The calls were from Centre, Blair, Huntingdon and Cambria counties.

“Our volunteers called it Grebe-a-Geddon because we've never gotten that many grebes at one time," she said.

A grebe with its wings extended, running on water before taking off.
Faith De Boef/Michael Kensinger
Centre Wildlife Care
A grebe running on water before taking off, after being rescued and released by volunteers and Centre Wildlife Care. The birds made emergency landings in central Pennsylvania during a snowstorm in January 2024.

In the past they've seen the birds in rainstorms.

“This is unprecedented that we got grebes with snow," Graboski said. "And they were literally everywhere. In fields and people's yards. Just everywhere.”

Volunteers, along with local veterinarians and Centre Wildlife were able to collect the grebes and release most of them back into large bodies of water. A few needed some extra care at Centre Wildlife.

Graboski said if you do find a grebe or other bird after a rain or snow storm, do not give them food or water. You can contact Centre Wildlife Care for the best steps. In general, if you can, get the grebe in a box with a soft cloth on the bottom and a lid on top.

"You know, a lot of people make the mistake of not putting a lid on the box and sometimes they pop out. They can't walk very well, but they jump a little bit. They try to move around," she said.

Some birds, such as loons, can be dangerous. In that case, one option is to put a tub over it and slide the lid underneath.

Grebes taking off from a body of water.
Faith De Boef/Michael Kensinger
Centre Wildlife Care
Several of the grebes took off, after volunteers and Centre Wildlife Care rescued them in central Pennsylvania in January 2024 after a snowstorm grounded the birds.

"It is important for people to know that they need to get them to us as soon as possible, not to try to keep them, not to feed them. Because if they're OK, the best course of action is to get them back out and released in water, and it needs to be a large body of open water," Graboski said. "It can't be a little pond or a little stream. It has to be a large body of open water, and we have good locations to release them where we know there's other of those same species there."

Anne Danahy has been a reporter at WPSU since fall 2017. Before crossing over to radio, she was a reporter at the Centre Daily Times in State College, Pennsylvania, and she worked in communications at Penn State. She is married with cats.
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