With plain plumage but extraordinary behavior, the American dipper is a popular and sought after bird for many life lists. As one of only five dipper species in the world, it’s a unique and interesting bird to see.
American Dipper, Water Ouzel
- Bill: Straight, black
- Size: 7.5 inches long with 9-inch wingspan, short tail, stubby body
- Colors: Gray, black, gray-brown, pink, white
- Markings: Genders are similar with overall plain gray-black plumage that may show gray-brown or darker black on the head with a faint dark eye line in good light. White eyelids are noticeable when blinking, and legs and feet are pale pink. Juvenile birds are slightly lighter colored, with a pale bill and thin white edging on the wings.
Aquatic insects, fish, mollusks, crustaceans
Habitat and Migration:
American dippers are found in or near rocky, active streams and shallow rivers in mountain regions from Alaska south throughout the Rocky Mountain region, as well as along the Pacific Coast as far south as central California. They can also be found in similar riparian habitats in the central Mexico mountains. These birds are never far from water and prefer higher elevation ranges with water sources often fed by melting snow or glaciers. While they do not migrate, they may move to lower elevations in their range during winter.
The American dipper's song is a high, piercing warble with a raspy quality and a varied tempo. The typical call is a sharp, even "zeeet" that can be heard above the rushing waters of the streams, and these birds may call rapidly in flight along the course of the river or stream.
The American dipper is the only truly aquatic songbird in North America. It will dive headfirst into the water, even fly straight into the water, and fly underwater while foraging. They may also walk on the bottom of the river or stream to find prey before surfacing, and can fly out of the water as well. Out of the water, they perch on rocks or low branches near the water – often in the middle of the stream – and bob or dip repeatedly, often with the tail cocked upwards. Generally solitary, these birds can be seen in pairs during the breeding season or in small family groups for a brief period in late summer or early fall.
These are primarily monogamous birds, though some polygamy has been observed in American dipper populations. The female parent incubates the eggs for 13-18 days, and both parents feed the altricial young for an additional 18-25 days until they are ready to leave the nest, at which point the young birds can dive into the water to feed themselves. Each brood may contain 3-5 eggs, and 2 broods per year are common.
Attracting American Dippers:
These are not typically backyard birds. In the field, they can often be seen near stream edges or perched on partially submerged rocks in the water. These birds are susceptible to habitat loss from damming rivers and streams, and pollution of those water sources is a threat to their survival and breeding success. Discarded fishing line is also a severe threat to American dippers, and becoming tangled in the line can be fatal for both adults and young birds.
- Brown Dipper (Cinclus pallasii)