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American Dipper

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An Oddity Wrapped in a Plain Wrapper

Don’t let the appearance of normal cause you to assume that normal is as normal looks. If that were the case, then my Uncle Theo would be the epitome of normality. He isn’t… just sit down and visit with him for a spell. He might look like the archetypal old-man-next-door, but he’s as weird as weird gets. He even put copper wire in his attic to keep the alien mind rays from reading his thoughts.  Although, when I watch what is going on in Washington D.C., I think he might be on to something. 

And this is true for our bird of the month: the American dipper. It might look like your archetypal songbird, but you’d be deceived. This is one weird bird, but in a good way. And its plain wrapper only adds to the deception. 

The American dipper is also less commonly called the Water Ouzel—though that might be a more fitting name. I mean “ouzel!” What’s an ouzel? Can you say “an ouzel is as an ouzel does?” I digress…

The American dipper is a bird of fast mountain streams. I should write pollution-free mountain streams, as this bird is very sensitive to the negative effects of human civilization. That is why it is often considered an indicator species, meaning that if the bird is present, all is well. If the bird leaves an area, something’s amiss. And it only exists in the West, from Alaska down to Mexico. 

This is a song bird—a passerine—and it looks the part. Squat and gray, it looks like an oversized sparrow with a thyroid problem. Make it about seven inches in length—both ways. The gray can range from dark to light, sometimes even with a tinge of brown. And it has… wait for it… contrasting white eyelids. These become apparent only when it blinks. Weirdness, I tell ya…

Who would imagine that such a bird would, or even could, live among fast-rushing mountain streams? Cold ones. The ones that are too cold for us featherless folks to wade even in the summer! Yup, that’s where they make their living. And raise their young. 

Dippers get their name from their habit of dipping underwater into these streams. They can swim! They even “walk” along the stream beds in search of their prey. I don’t know how they do it. I’ve watched many a dipper manage a stream with such strong flows that it would knock me over. 

They feed off of underwater insect larvae, such as dragonfly nymphs; picking them from the stones and wood debris that they cling to. “Lookout Herbie, here comes a dipper. RUN! Oh, you can’t… you don’t have legs… WIGGLE!”

Dippers make their nests along these streams, often under bridges or waterfalls, and far from the reach of predators. One source I researched stated that the primary limiting factor for American dipper populations is not lack of habitat, as in food sources and clean streams, but the lack of suitable nesting sites. 

The American dipper is a resident, meaning it stays put all year round. In some regions it might migrate down the stream to ice-free areas, but I’ve seen them in the same place in November during deer season. Their call is distinctive, though hard to compare to other bird species. It is an eclectic collection of short bird songs that brings to mind a variety of different species. It is as if it can’t decide what song to sing, so it sings brief excerpts from every tune it knows. 

There you go. Now head to the mountains to add the American dipper to your life list. Of course, you might need a Jeep. Happy birding!

(This particular column is dedicated to Willie, an avid birder and purveyor of fine bird articles. And a fan. Gotta love those fans!)

Like bird photos? You can find my collection online at birdsidaho.blogspot.com. And if you want to complain, you can write me at mturnlund@gmail.com. 

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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

Tagged as:

A Bird in Hand, Michael Turnlund, American Dipper

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