Hooded Grebes couldn’t possibly know they live near the birthplace of one of the world’s most iconic dances, but just stick a rose in this bird’s beak and you’ve got a pretty mean tango.
Taken from the new film Tango in the Wind—which highlights efforts to protect these imperiled birds and is available online—the clip above offers a rare look at the Hooded Grebe’s courtship display. They use some fancy footwork to raise themselves above the surface of a remote lake, dance cheek-to-cheek with impeccable timing, and whip their heads around in rhythm like a pair of headbangers at a Megadeth show.
Living Wild in South America, a team of naturalists and filmmakers exploring the continent's birds and other wildlife, produced the film as part of its Hooded Grebe project. BirdLife International, an Audubon partner, helped with production through its Nest Quest effort to protect vital breeding grounds.
As a family, grebes are known for their showy moves. Great Crested Grebes perform similar courtship dances in their Eurasian breeding grounds, and here in North America, Western Grebes and Clark’s Grebes get so caught up in romance that they run on water. But the Hooded Grebe’s courtship hasn’t been nearly as well documented, thanks to its limited range in the harsh and isolated barrens of Patagonia, near the tip of South America. In fact, the species wasn’t even known to science until 1974. “There aren’t many people who know much about Hooded Grebe courtship,” says Audubon field editor Kenn Kaufman. “The people who made this video probably know as much about the bird as anyone does.”
The Hooded Grebe’s courtship dance may look funny, but with fewer than 500 breeding pairs remaining, this is serious business. Its numbers have declined by about 80 percent in the past 25 years, largely due to the introduction of the non-native American mink and rainbow trout, according to BirdLife International. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature labeled the species critically endangered in 2016.
Researchers interviewed in Tango in the Wind say climate change further threatens Hooded Grebe’s habitat and survival, noting that it’s already drying up the lakes where they nest. While more abundant than their Patagonian cousins, Western Grebes and Clark’s Grebes both face significant losses of their summer range, thanks to climate change. They’re among the 314 climate-endangered North American bird species identified by Audubon.
Fortunately, as the film shows, a dedicated group of researchers, educators and “colony guardians” are working hard to make sure the beat goes on for Hooded Grebes.