One of my favorite birds is the American Dipper (Cinclus mexicanus). I love to spend time near streams and so do Dippers. I’m always really happy to see one of these birds.
An American Dipper looks like a small, dark gray robin or thrush. The other common name for this bird is Water Ouzel. The word ouzel comes from Old English and means ‘blackbird,’ or ‘thrush.’
Dippers live their entire lives along the frothing, bouncing waters of mountain streams. They are well-adapted for swimming in chilly water. A Dipper’s dense plumage keeps it warm as it pokes its head underwater or dives while searching for small invertebrates to eat– mostly the larvae of stoneflies, caddisflies, and mayflies. To find these juicy morsels, Dippers use their beaks to flip small rocks over in the stream bed.
Dippers keep their feathers water-resistant by preening them with oil that is secreted by an enlarged gland at the base of their tails.
Large, strong feet help Dippers get a grip on slick rocks. They walk around completely submerged on the bottom of the stream. They can also flap their wings to ‘fly’ underwater, sort of penguin style.
A relatively low basal metabolic rate and blood that is very efficient in carrying oxygen both help the Dipper spend a long time underwater.
When a dipper takes to air, it generally flies along the course of the stream, keeping close to the surface of the water. If you sit on the bank of a mountain stream for awhile, you will probably see a Dipper flying by or foraging among the rocks.
Or you might hear one. The Dipper’s song is loud and bright– it has to be, if it’s going to be heard over the roar of rushing water.
A telltale characteristic of the Dipper is the jerky knee-bends that it performs every second or so. This ‘dipping’ behavior is what gives the bird its common name. Other species in the dipper family, Cinclidae, also have this behavior. Check out the video below to see what I’m talking about.
Dippers build their nests out of moss, among woody debris or rocks close to the stream’s splashing water. They sometimes build nests behind waterfalls.
Cold, clean streams are the best habitats for Dippers. Streams that have suffered from pollution or artificial warming caused by humans don’t make good homes for the insects that Dippers eat, so they don’t make good homes for Dippers. For this reason, the American Dipper can be an indicator of high quality stream habitat in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere in western North America.