Heliornithidae – Finfoots & Sungrebe

African Finfoot Podica senegalensis ©Paul Cools (Creative Commons) Website

Heliornithidae are a small family of tropical birds with webbed lobes on their feet like those of grebes and coots. The family overall are known as finfoots, although one species is known as the Sungrebe. The family is composed of three species in three genera, each being confined to a continent; Masked Finfoot in India and other parts of Asia, African Finfoot in Tropical Africa and the Sungrebe in the Neotropics. They resemble rails; they have long necks, slender bodies, broad tails, and sharp, pointed bills. They have a diverse range of calls, but do not call frequently. Their legs and feet are brightly coloured and, unlike grebes, they are capable of walking well and even moving quickly on land.

Finfoots are found in numerous habitats in the tropics as long as there is water and cover. It is uncertain why cover is so essential to finfoots, but they are extremely secretive and often overlooked. Their ranges extend from coastal creeks to fast-moving mountain streams, most commonly being found in large slow moving bodies of water. They also use swamps, reed beds, mangroves, and forest. Finfoots are territorial, probably for much of the year and certainly when breeding. They are not thought to undertake regular migrations, but some birds do regularly disperse and they are quick to colonise new areas of suitable habitat.

They feed on a wide range of foods, insects of various sorts being the most frequently observed component of their diet. Little quantitative information on finfoot diet exists, but they have also been recorded eating molluscs, crustaceans, spiders, frogs, fish and some leaves and seeds. Unlike grebes they do not dive to obtain food, instead picking prey off the water’s surface or foraging on the shore.

All three species tend to breed after the wet season, the exact timing of which is dependent on the local climate. The breeding behaviour of the Masked Finfoot is almost entirely unknown. All three species exhibit some changes in appearance prior to breeding – Masked Finfoots develop a fleshy knob above the bill, and the plumage of the male African Finfoot and female Sungrebe also change. There is considerable variation within the finfoots on several aspects of breeding; in the Sungrebe the nest building and incubation duties are shared between the sexes, in the African Finfoot the female alone incubates. The nests of all finfoots are untidy bowls of sticks, twigs, and reeds suspended in vegetation above water

There are generally accepted to be just three species in this family, which are:

African Finfoot Podica senegalensis

Masked Finfoot Heliopais personata

Sungrebe Heliornis fulica

Species Links
  • African Finfoot Podica senegalensis

    BirdLife Species Account
  • African Finfoot Podica senegalensis

    HBW Species Account
  • African Finfoot Podica senegalensis

    IUCN Species Status
  • African Finfoot Podica senegalensis

    Species Account
    Sound archive and distribution map.
  • African Finfoot Podica senegalensis

    Species Account
    The African finfoot (Podica senegalensis) is an aquatic bird inhabiting the rivers and lakes of western, central, and southern Africa.
  • Masked Finfoot Heliopais personata

    BirdLife Species Account
  • Masked Finfoot Heliopais personata

    Species Account
    The masked finfoot (Heliopais personatus) belongs to the family Heliornithidae. The masked finfoot species are distributed in the Indian subcontinent, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia.
  • Masked Finfoot Heliopais personata

    IUCN Species Status
  • Masked Finfoot Heliopais personata

    Species Account
    Sound archive and distribution map.
  • Masked Finfoot Heliopais personata

    Species Account
    The masked finfoot or Asian finfoot (Heliopais personatus) is an aquatic bird from the fresh and brackish wetlands of the eastern Indian subcontinent, Indochina, Malaysia and Indonesia. Like the rest of the family, the African finfoot and the sungrebe, the relationship to other birds is poorly understood.
  • Sungrebe Heliornis fulica

    BirdLife Species Account
  • Sungrebe Heliornis fulica

    HBW Species Account
    Taxonomy: Colymbus fulica Boddaert, 1783, Cayenne.DNA analysis suggests possible link between present species and Aramidae. Monotypic.
  • Sungrebe Heliornis fulica

    IUCN Species Status
  • Sungrebe Heliornis fulica

    Species Account
    Sound archive and distribution map.
  • Sungrebe Heliornis fulica

    Species Account
    The sungrebe or American finfoot (Heliornis fulica) is a bird which breeds in tropical Central and South America from southern Mexico to northeast Argentina and southern Brazil.
  • Sungrebe Heliornis fulica

    Cornell Species Account
    The Sungrebe is a small aquatic bird that superficially resembles a grebe (Podicipedidae), but it is more closely related to the rails (Rallidae). Sungrebes have rather long, slender bills and lobed toes that are yellow with black bands.
Number of Species
  • Number of bird species: 3

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