Be Your Own Birder

Weekly Bird: American Dipper

The American dipper is an amazing bird, and one of very few birds that is nearly as comfortable in the water as it is on land and in the air. So often, the very best fliers or swimmers are awkward on land, birds that are great at running don’t swim or fly well (if at all), or the top avian swimmers are awkward in flight or on land. But the American dipper can do it all!

American Dipper

American Dipper – Photo by Sunny

American Dipper Fun Facts

The American dipper (Cinclus mexicanus) is quite distinct, once you learn about this small but amazing bird. Many birders haven’t heard about it at all, but once you discover it, you’ll want to learn more!

  • The American dipper has also been called the water ouzel, North American dipper or water thrush. A flock or group of dippers is called a ladle (how fun!).
  • There are five dipper species in the world. In addition to the American dipper, there is the white-throated dipper (Europe and Asia), brown dipper (Asia), white-capped dipper (eastern South America) and the rufous-throated dipper (central South America).
  • These birds are called “dippers” because of their habit or bobbing or dipping up and down as they stand on rocks or shorelines, but the purpose of that dipping has never been thoroughly explained. It is not believed to be related to foraging, mating, courtship, claiming territory or other better known behaviors.
  • These birds are industrious fishermen, but they eat a lot more than just fish. If it’s in the water, the American dipper might eat it, including crayfish, insects, larvae, tadpoles, worms, fish eggs and other prey.
  • American dippers are found in swift mountain rivers and streams, typically with water that tumbles over rocky stretches and is moving enough so it does not freeze in winter. Their range stretches as far north as Alaska and south to Panama, and they do not migrate.
  • Though these birds are most often associated with mountain habitats, they can also be found in coastal or lowland areas in Alaska and even desert streams within their southern range. So long as the water is rushing along and sufficient prey is available, American dippers can be present.
  • Because these birds require clean, fresh water to thrive, they are considered an indicator species for water quality. If American dippers vanish, it’s a good sign that the water may be polluted or the ecosystem compromised. Excess erosion and increased sediments can also contaminate dippers’ habitats.
  • American dippers truly do fly underwater, using their wings to propel themselves when submerged. They may also use their long toes to grip rocks and pebbles as they walk along underneath the water’s surface. American dippers can dive up to 20 feet deep, but generally stay in waterways that are much shallower.
  • In flight, these birds stay relatively close to the water’s surface and will fly along the waterway rather than flying over land, even if the river or creek is very winding.
  • These aquatic birds have a uropygial gland that is up to 10 times larger than the gland of other songbirds, giving them a much thicker coating of oil on their plumage to keep it from getting waterlogged.
  • American dippers have a nictitating membrane that closes over their eyes while underwater to protect them, though the birds can still see through the membrane. When they blink on land, their eyelids (not the same as the nictitating membrane) are white.
  • Another underwater adaptation of American dippers is a scaly nasal flap they close when they submerge. This keeps water from entering the nares (nostrils).
Add the American Dipper to Your Life List

The American dipper can be hard to spot at first, but once you see one, you’ll start to notice them more and more. Visit active, rushing mountain streams in the birds’ range, streams that are also home to abundant fish (thus indicating they are environmentally healthy). Streams with overhanging banks, fallen logs or stepping-stone rocks are best, as those features provide dippers with plenty of perches as they forage. Watch for energetically moving, bobbing rocks, and you’ll notice those rocks are actually these fun gray-brown birds. Late summer can be the best time to spot American dippers as they are found in small family groups and parents are feeding their stridently begging youngsters, but winter is also a good time to find dippers when some streams have frozen and there is less open water for the birds to use.

Learn More About the American Dipper

Learn even more great information about the American dipper through these fine resources…

American Dipper Swimming

American Dipper Swimming – Photo by -ted

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