Home & Garden: American Dippers, a western water bird | PostIndependent.com

Home & Garden: American Dippers, a western water bird

Larry Collins
Free Press Home & Garden Columnist
White-throated Dipper river bird (Cinclus-cinclus)
Getty Images/iStockphoto | iStockphoto

This week I’d like to talk about one of my favorite birds. To me, this bird resembles a person on steroids at the gym doing deep knee bends or a child building their nerve for the first dive into water. I am talking about the American Dipper. I last saw one on a stream in the Rifle Falls State Park the summer before last.

A chunky bird of western streams, the American Dipper is North America’s only truly aquatic songbird. It catches all of its food underwater in swiftly flowing streams by swimming and walking on the stream bottom. It is a stocky, medium-sized bird, gray in color all over, with a large head, short neck, long legs, short tail, thin dark bill, and has white eyelids when it blinks. One of its distinguishing characteristic is it constantly bobs its body up and down.

American Dippers live almost solely near rushing, unpolluted waters and can be found in mountain, coastal, or even desert streams of the West. I did, however have a person tell me they took a picture of a dipper in the Orchard Mesa Cemetery. Dippers forage in streams with rocky bottoms, can wade, swim, and dive from both the water and the air, and can move rocks on the stream-bottom to get at food. American Dippers feed on aquatic insects and their larvae, including mayflies, mosquitoes, and midges. They also eat dragonflies, worms, small fish, fish eggs, or flying insects. When looking for their stream-dwelling prey, they duck their heads into the water, often up to 60 times per minute, a movement that gives this bird its name.

The female builds the dipper’s domed, ball-like nests, often in freezing temperatures. She dips the materials into water before weaving them into two layers: one, an outer shell, eight to 10 inches in diameter, made of moss, and the other an inner chamber with a woven cup, two to three inches in diameter, made of grass, leaves, and bark. Once the nest is finished, the mossy shell absorbs moisture and the coarse grass keeps the inside dry.

American Dippers build nests on cliff ledges, behind waterfalls, on boulders, and on dirt banks or under bridges, but always above or close to the fast water of their stream habitat. Females choose a ledge or crevice that is six to 20 feet above deep water so that the nest will not be in danger of predators or flooding. Dippers are generally solitary birds even though they are monogamous. Pairs will often stay together in winter, but after the chicks’ fledging, parents often divide their brood and their territory and part ways.

American Dippers don’t migrate south, though they may move to larger, unfrozen rivers in winter or follow insect hatches in spring or summer. To be able to survive in cold waters during the winter, the American Dipper has a low metabolic rate, extra oxygen-carrying capacity in its blood, and a thick coat of feathers. Unlike most other songbirds, but similarly to ducks, the American Dipper molts its wing and tail feathers all at once in the late summer. The bird is flightless during this time.

Thank you to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for the information used in part of this article.

Local bird expert and GJ Free Press columnist Larry Collins owns Wild Birds Unlimited, 2454 Hwy. 6&50, which caters to folks who want the best backyard bird-feeding experience possible. Email your bird-feeding and birding questions to lcollins1@bresnan.net.

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