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Grebe Symbolism & Meaning (+Totem, Spirit & Omens)

Great Crested Grebe

Grebes are a group of distinctive water birds with a wide distribution and a large variety of individual species. On the whole, grebes are typically found in freshwater environments, though they can also be found close to the shorelines in marine environments. (1)

Grebes are specially adapted for diving. They possess special lobed toes which are excellent for propelling them through the water. Their legs are situated towards the back of their bodies, giving them a hydrodynamic missile-like shape. Because of this unique anatomical design, however, the grebe is exceptionally clumsy on land. They are prone to falling after a few steps and are most often seen in the water. (2)

Grebes also engage in a unique behavior that serves as an adaptation to protect their digestive systems. Grebes eat their own feathers. In fact, they eat so much of their feathers that it’s not uncommon for up to half of a grebe’s stomach to contain feathers. This habit may be bizarre, but it protects their digestive systems by forming a barrier through which undigestible food items, like bones and cartilage, are unable to pass. This feather barrier keeps these items from damaging their intestines. The grebe eventually expels these items in the form of pellets. This is similar to the way that owls handle undigestible items. (3)

Grebes are fairly common and considered by many to be unremarkable. Surely, though, there must be many things that we can learn from a bird with such fascinating adaptations. The grebe, in fact, is a bird with tons of mythological significance. If the serene image of the grebe floating on still water speaks to you, or if you find the clumsy awkwardness of the grebe waddling onto land to be charming, then read on to learn about the wisdom of the grebe.

On this page
Grebe Symbolism and Meaning
Grebe Native American Symbolism
Grebe Celtic Symbolism
Grebe in Dreams
Grebe Encounters and Omens
Grebe Mythology and Folklore
    Native American Mythology:
    Greek Mythology:
Grebe Spirit Animal
Grebe Totem Animal
Grebe Power Animal
Grebe Tattoo Meaning

Grebe Symbolism and Meaning

The grebe is a symbol of serenity and peace. Many associate this bird with idyllic scenes of crystal-clear lakes and languidly floating birds that adorn the water like lotus flowers. Ironically, though, grebes on land are the opposite of elegant.

Because grebes are so graceful and effortless on the water and so clumsy and incompetent on land, the grebe is a symbol of individual strengths. As the often misquoted saying goes: “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” (4) If we apply this quote to the grebe, then this bird is an Einstein in the water! Built for diving, the grebe is poorly adapted for land and for flying, however in the water it is unbeatable.

The grebe is also symbolic of romance. Grebe’s are famous for their elaborate courtship displays. These displays often feature eye-catching tandem rushes across the surface of the water and gift-giving “dances” wherein bits of aquatic weeds are held or exchanged. (5)

Grebe with Chick
Photo by Elsemargriet on Pixabay

Once the pair of birds have completed the courtship process, they rear a single brood of chicks each year. These chicks are carried on the mother’s back and tended to by both mother and father. For this reason, the grebe may also represent parenthood and protection. (6)

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Grebe Native American Symbolism

In Native American traditions, the grebe is typically associated with courage and shrewdness. In several archetypal myths wherein the hero slays a gaggle of gullible geese, the grebe is the first bird who is wise and vigilant enough to notice and call out a warning. (7)

Grebe Celtic Symbolism

In Celtic traditions, the grebe was said to be a guardian of the spirit world. (8)

Grebe in Dreams

Dreaming of a grebe is a good indicator that these unique birds have some wisdom in store for you.

A dream in which a grebe appears in the water, and especially diving, indicates that the dreamer is at peace with the direction of their life and that they are making the right choices to bring out their strongest, happiest self.

Dreaming of a grebe on land is likely a sign that the dreamer has not yet discovered their greatest talents or assets. It may also mean that the choices the dreamer is making are holding them back. If you find yourself struggling to move forward, examine whether the route you have chosen allows you to utilize your strengths.

Grebe Encounters and Omens

An encounter with a grebe can indicate a number of things.

An encounter with a pair of grebes may indicate that romantic success is on the horizon.

Coming face to face with a family of grebes with chicks may be a sign of protection for your loved ones, or a sign that your family might grow soon.

Little Grebe
Photo by Bob Brewer on Unsplash

Encountering a diving grebe may be reminder to stay vigilant. Although grebes appear calm on the water, they are always prepared to perform a “crash-dive” into the water to escape danger. (9) Thus, a grebe may act as a reminder that peace and serenity must always be in balance with watchfulness.

Grebe in Mythology & Folklore

In mythology, the grebe is often connected with cleverness and courage. Grebes are present in lots of cultures’ stories, however there are only a few in which the grebe plays a starring role.

Native American Mythology

Native American mythology treats the grebe, or “Hell-Diver,” as a creature of great courage and perseverance. The grebe in the following story is a plucky animal with the guts to defeat winter itself.

“Every winter, the birds fly south. One winter, a Hell-Diver (also called a Grebe) told all of the other birds that he would stay for the winter to take care of two of his friends who had been injured and couldn’t fly south. Both of his friends, a whooping crane and mallard duck, had broken wings. To feed them, he got fish by diving through a hole in the ice. But the Spirit of Winter got jealous of his success at fishing and froze the water after the Hell-Diver had dived through his hole below the ice. But the Hell-Diver swam to shore where there were a lot of reeds and bulrushes. He pulled one of them down through the ice with his bill to make a hole in the ice and so he got out and flew home. When he got home, he saw that someone was peeking in the door of his wigwam. It was the Spirit of Winter, who did not like him and who was trying to freeze him out. The Hell-Diver got a big fire going, but it was still cold in the wigwam because the Spirit of Winter was right there making it cold. But the Hell-Diver tricked the Spirit of Winter by mopping his face with a handkerchief and saying, “Gee, but it’s hot in here!” The Spirit of Winter thought the fire was hot enough to melt him, so he ran away. One day the Hell-Diver decided to have a feast. He got some wild rice and sent a duck to invite the Spirit of Winter, but it was so cold that the duck froze to death before he got there. Then he sent Partridge with the invitation. She got very cold too, but she dove under the snow to warm up and then went on again. She reached the Spirit of Winter and invited him to the Hell-Diver’s feast. When the Spirit of Winter came to the feast, it was like a blizzard coming in the door of the wigwam. He had icicles on his nose and face. Hell-Diver built the fire higher and higher, and it began to get warm inside the wigwam. The icicles began to melt on the Spirit of Winter’s face. He was getting awfully warm, but he liked the wild rice that Hell-Diver had at his feast and wanted to keep eating. Hell-Diver said, “Whew! It’s very warm in here. It must be spring already.” The Spirit of Winter got scared and grabbed his blanket and ran out of the wigwam. With his fire, Hell-Diver had brought the spring and outside, things were already melting and there were just patches of snow here and there. The Spirit of Winter had a hard time getting back to his home in the north, where there is always snow.” (9)

Greek Mythology:

In Greek Mythology, the grebe appears in the story of the Pierides. The Pierides were nine mortal sisters who challenged the Muses in a contest of song. The Muses were a group of minor goddesses and daughters of Zeus who represented the arts and the divine inspiration of artists.

When the Pierides challenged the Muses, they made a grave error. For a human to challenge a goddess was sacrilegious. During the Pierides’ song, the whole world went black and nature itself refused to listen. For their crime, the Pierides were punished by being transformed into various birds. One such bird was the grebe. (10)

Grebe Spirit Animal

If the grebe is your spirit animal, then you are likely brave, protective, clever, and unique.

People with the grebe as their spirit animal often have impressive individual talents. They may, however, struggle to conform and fit in in situations that don’t showcase their talents.

People with the grebe as their spirit animal often struggle in unfamiliar situations. They may feel awkward when trying new things or meeting new people. Their relationships are very important to them, though, so it’s necessary that people with this spirit animal learn to be flexible and branch out. Meeting new people is, of course, an essential step in making new friends.

People with the grebe as their spirit animal are often very family-oriented. They make take joy in working with children and are well-suited for careers in education and care-taking.

Grebe Totem Animal

The grebe totem animal is noteworthy for its vigilance and cunning. Although individuals with the grebe as their totem animal are often gentle souls, they are quite stoic and difficult to fool.

Horned Grebe
Photo by Mathew Schwartz on Unsplash

Dishonesty is something that people with the grebe totem animal cannot abide. Though they are kind, people with this totem animal are not blindly trusting. They are always on the look out for danger and deception.

The kindness of the grebe totem animal runs out when vulnerable loved ones are involved. People with this totem animal have a strong protective instinct and will not allow helpless people to suffer. When they sense danger to themselves, they will flee. When people with this totem animal detect danger to their loved ones, though, their courage becomes apparent. They will defend others fiercely.

Grebe Power Animal

The grebe power animal is defined by its excellent judgment. People with the grebe power animal are gifted decision makers. They are wise and pragmatic and devote a great deal of thought towards choosing the right path. Fortunately, people with the grebe power animal also tend to think quickly and produce decisions on the fly!

With the ability to make tough calls without wavering, the judgment of the grebe power animal is indeed impressive. Additionally, this judgment applies to the motives and characters of others. People with the grebe power animal are very good at determining whether those around them have good intentions. They are also excellent at spotting lies.

Grebe Tattoo Meaning

A grebe tattoo is indicative of hidden strength. A person may want to get a grebe tattoo if they struggled to find their purpose or to achieve the expectations of others. In these cases, a grebe tattoo represents the importance of capitalizing on one’s own talents.


There are few creatures quite like the grebe. This bird’s most bizarre qualities are not, however, the most striking things about it. Eating one’s own feathers is certainly a very strange adaptation, as is having feet that sit so far back on the body that walking is difficult. What’s interesting about the grebe is not these adaptations, though. It is the very fact that the grebe has adapted so impressively and creatively.

The grebe is a bird that rises to meet challenges. Need to be able to dive? Not a problem! The grebe will just sacrifice a bit of its elegance on land. Shards of fishbone creating digestive problems? The grebe has that covered too! It will just cushion its digestive system with feathers. The greatest wisdom that the grebe has to offer us is that there is no challenge that can’t be beat with a bit of outside-the-box thinking. The grebe is a master class in playing to your strengths and rolling with the punches.

More Spirit Animal Symbolism to Read About:
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Cormorant Symbolism & Meaning (+Totem, Spirit & Omens)

2 thoughts on “Grebe Symbolism & Meaning (+Totem, Spirit & Omens)”

  1. Avatar

    Hi Hailey ,

    Well done on your wonderful research on these adorable birds – I am currently doing a short documentary on the impact of climate change on grebes – is it ok to use some of your research in the film – I will of course credit you ,

    Many thanks

    1. Avatar

      Hi, yes that is absolutely okay, but you may want to cite the sources I used as well for some of that information. Thanks for reading!

      — Hailey Brophy
      Writer @ World Birds

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