The American Dipper: 33 Facts to Make You Love Them


American dippers are up there on my list of favourite birds.  They may be drab looking, but spend some time watching them feed along the swift current of streams and you will be mesmerized.

American Dipper Basics

1. The American dipper, or Cinclus mexicanus, is an aquatic songbird.  It is one of 5 dipper species in the world

2. It is 14-20 cm long

3. It was once thought to be relative of the wren, but recent DNA studies place it closer to thrushes.  The five series make up the family Cinclidae. 

Photo by Greg Schechter

4. All  5 species of Cinclidae look pretty much identical.  2 species are in South America,  1 in northern Africa, 1 in Europe and 1 in Asia. 

5. Dippers, particularly the white-throated dipper of Europe is also known as the Water ouzel

Bonus:  The Cinclus mexicanus lives in Western North America from Alaska to California, with isolated populations throughout Central America.

Dipper Habitat

6. Dippers are the world’s only aquatic songbirds

7. They live in swift streams where they have plenty of boulders to perch on.

The American dipper is at home in swift water. Photo by PE Hart.

8. They build their nest 6-20 feet above a deep portion of the stream (closer in high water) under bridges, on cliffs, or under waterfalls.

9. Dippers are territorial and need a stretch of river 400 m-4 km. The limiting factor in their territory is a good nest site.

10. They aren’t generally migratory birds, though they will migrate to lower elevations if their stream freezes over.

Homemaking Habits

11. Because their nests are so close to the water and so exposed to moisture, dippers build a layer of moss around their nest that is eight to ten inches in diameters to absorb moisture.  The actual living quarters keeps out the moisture and are only about two to three inches wide.  It is made of grass, leaves, and bark. 

12. Because bridges make such good nest sites, dippers can often be spotted in urban areas (as long as the water isn’t too polluted to kill off the invertebrates that dippers eat).

An urban American dipper nest. Photo by Martin Lindner

13. Unlike other songbirds, dippers don’t sing to announce their territory once established…probably because of the noise of running water in their habitat.  Here is a link to their song. 

Dipper Dinner Time

14. They eat mostly aquatic invertebrates.

15. What makes them so cool isn’t what they eat, but how they eat it. They usually feed by wading through fast-moving water and submerging their heads to catch their prey, but they can also do the same while swimming on top of the water like a duck.  Even more impressive is how they dive to the bottom of the deeper water and do a sort of walk along the bottom by grabbing at rocks.  On occasion, they will dive from their perch or fly to catch insects in flight. 

Physical Adaptations

16. Dippers have many physical adaptations to help them thrive in their aquatic habitat

17. They can hold their breath for up to 30 seconds, which is a long time for a creature their size, giving them plenty of time to nab their underwear bugs.

18. They have stubbier wings and tail feathers than the average songbird making them better suited for swimming.

19. Dippers have twice as many contour feathers as other songbirds to keep them dry, and a  thick down layer to keep them warm in those cold mountain streams. 

20. Dippers have sphincter muscles in their eyes to allow them to change the curvature of their lenses to see above and below water.

21. To maintain their feathers’ waterproofness, dippers preen longer and more often than other songbirds.  A preening session can last up to ten minutes and is essential for maintaining waterproofness.

22. Dippers have a nictitating membrane, a translucent “eyelid” that they can pull over their eyes to allow them to see underwater.

23. They also have scales on their nostrils that they can close when submerged. 

24. Like ducks, dippers moult tail and wing feathers all at once in late summer, which makes them temporarily flightless

25. Compared with other songbirds, dippers have slower metabolisms and blood with extra oxygen-carrying capacity to help them deal with cold water. 

Dipper Defence 

The dipper has come up with some pretty cool ways to defend itself. 

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Dipper flashing it’s white eyelids. Photo credit: Carley Fairbrother

26. The dipper’s name comes from their bobbing up and down, often twitching or stretching wings.  It is thought to deter predators by displaying their physical fitness, though some think that the dipping is a form of communication.

27. If disturbed they will blink their white feathered eyelids, perhaps as a warning to their nearby mate.

Dipper Family Life

28. In courtship, the male and female will sing to each other and strut with their wings drooping and bill pointing up.  The male will also feed the female as she crouches and begs.

29. Dipper mate for life….

30. …but they will divide the territory up during winter once they are done raising their young. 

31. Both male and females will work to feed the young. 

32. A female American Dipper will lay one to two clutches of four to five eggs per year.

33. Dipper babies look as featherless and helpless as other newly hatched songbirds but are able to swim almost immediately after they hatch.

The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America
The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behaviour

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