15 Fun & Surprising Dipper Bird Facts [Updated]

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Fun & Interesting Facts About Dipper Birds (Cinclidae Cinclus)

Dipper birds are incredibly unique passerine birds (perching songbirds) that are considered “truly aquatic,” meaning that they obtain all of their food from water sources like rivers and streams and can even swim.

They can be found in the Americas, Europe, Asia, and a tiny portion of Africa (the Atlas Mountains in Morocco). They prefer highland habitats with ready access to fast-flowing water and are most often found within mountain and steep cliff habitats. Below, we’ll cover some interesting tidbits about these strange birds, from morphology to lifestyle.

1. Species

Dipper bird in a river
Dipper birds are known for their uniquely aquatic lifestyle. Pictured is a brown dipper. Photo by Rick Leche – Photography / CC BY-NC 2.0

There are only five species of dippers around the world, contained in the genus Cinclus, the only genus in the Cinclidae (dipper) family. These species are the American dipper (sometimes called the water ouzel), white-throated dipper (also known as the European dipper), brown dipper, white-capped dipper, and the rufous-throated dipper. There are dozens of subspecies.

2. Range

rufous-throated dipper in South America
The rufous-throated dipper is considered “vulnerable” by the IUCN with only 4,000 or fewer individuals. Photo by Nick Athanas / CC BY-NC 2.0

As might be expected, the American dipper (Cinclus mexicanus) is found throughout the Americas; more specifically, the western Americas. This includes western Canada, the western U.S., and much of Central and South America.

The European/white-throated dipper (Cinclus cinclus) can be found throughout the Palearctic, including much of Europe, the Middle East, portions of central Asia, and the Indian subcontinent in southern Asia.

Brown dippers (Cinclus pallasii), also known as Asian dippers or Pallas’s dipper, are found in the mountains of the eastern Palearctic region, perhaps most notably the Himalayas.

The white-capped dipper (Cinclus leucocephalus) is found exclusively in South America, specifically throughout the Andes Mountains.

Finally, the rufous-throated dipper (Cinclus schulzi) is found in the southern Andes Mountains and is the least populous of the five species at an estimated 4,000 or fewer total individuals. These latter two species are not known to have overlapping ranges.

3. Habitat

As mentioned above, dippers prefer mountainous and cliff-like habitats and can be found almost exclusively in these types of areas during the nesting season, as steep and rocky terrain help protect their eggs and young from potential predators.

Outside of nesting season, though, dippers can also be found in some more lowland and open habitats, such as along coastlines, in grasslands, wetlands, and even some deserts – so long as they have access to clean, well-oxygenated and fast-flowing water via a stream or river as they depend on these for their food.

Even when residing in more mountainous habitat, dippers typically build their nests as close as possible to streams or rivers, including under bridges and on boulders, as well as on cliff faces beside the water. Polluted waters result in dippers moving from the area within just a season or two, as much of their food (i.e., mayflies and caddisflies) rely on clean water to survive.

4. Diet

Dippers are unique as songbirds because their diet consists entirely of aquatic invertebrates and other aquatic life, which is partially why they are considered to be aquatic birds. They primarily feed on aquatic insects and their larvae, including mayflies, stoneflies, caddisflies, dragonflies, midges, and mosquitoes, but will also consume worms, fish eggs, small crustaceans, and small fish.

5. Feeding Style

Dipper bird diving for food
Dippers are so named for the way they dip their head in and out of water quickly to catch prey. Photo by Larry Lamsma / CC BY-SA 2.0

Dippers are actually named after the way that they hunt for and consume prey! All dipper species quickly dip their heads in and out of the water to search for food among rocky stream and river bottoms. In fact, they can dip their heads in and out of the water incredibly quickly, usually around 60 times per minute. They typically wade into the water to do this, their small legs proving surprisingly sturdy in swiftly flowing water, but they can also swim underwater for brief periods of time and have also been seen diving into the water to catch insects and other prey. 

6. Breeding

Dippers are usually monogamous, choosing one mate for the entire breeding season. They may choose the same mate for subsequent breeding seasons, though this isn’t known to be incredibly common. The females choose a male based on his song and flight style, as the males will sing as they stick out their chests and then alternate between flying high and low to show off their fitness, quite literally.

Both the male and the female contribute to building a nest, which resembles a wren nest in its roundness and is placed as close to a river or stream as possible, typically in rocky crags and cracks but sometimes in less inconspicuous places like on branches, rocks, or bridges. Some dipper nests have even been found behind waterfalls!

Often, parents will reuse the same nest year after year, and young may later use the same nest that they themselves were reared in. The females exclusively incubate the eggs, but both the male and female contribute to feeding the young once hatched. After the young fledge within about one month, the parents part ways.

7. Aquatic Birds

White-capped dipper in water
A white-capped dipper keeps an eye out for food. Photo by Francesco Veronesi / CC BY-SA 2.0

Though aquatic birds aren’t exactly uncommon (penguins, anyone?), aquatic songbirds are. In fact, dippers are the only known aquatic songbirds in the world, relying on fast-moving water for nearly all of their food (though they will eat the occasional flying insect above the water). Evolution has geared them heavily toward life in the water, from higher concentrations of hemoglobin in the blood to special eye morphology (both of which are discussed below).

8. They Can Walk Underwater

Though their legs appear small, dippers actually have quite sturdy, strong, long legs that allow them to remain stable even in fast-flowing water. They also have notably sharp and curved claws that allow them to grasp adeptly onto rocks, logs, mosses, and other substrates to help keep themselves safely rooted in the water. These claws enable them to grasp river bottoms and stream bottoms so adeptly that, when observed, they can appear to walk underwater almost as though they were walking on land!

9. Special Blood

All dipper species have extremely well-oxygenated blood that allows them to remain underwater for up to a minute (though about 30 seconds is average) as they swim and flip over rocks on stream bottoms to find prey. For northern-dwelling dippers like the American dipper, brown dipper, and European dipper, this extra oxygenated blood has an added perk – it helps them survive long and cold winters.  High blood-oxygen levels help keep organs and muscles running at optimal capacity, and aids in faster healing or replacement of damaged or dead cell walls (both of which are particularly useful when having to fly and swim in frigid temperatures).

10. Lots of Feathers

white-throated dipper in snow
Some 6,000 feathers help protect dippers from cold winters. Pictured is a white-throated dipper. Photo by Imran Shah from Islamabad, Pakistan, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Dippers are relatively small birds, ranging from 5 to 10 inches in height and weighing 1.4 to 3.2 ounces. American robins average 10 inches in height and about 3 ounces. Why are we talking about robins? Well, the average American robin has around 3,000 feathers. By contrast, dippers (of any species) have upwards of 6,000 feathers! Pretty impressive for a bird that can be as little as half the size of a robin.

These feathers help all dipper species to stay well-insulated while in water and help northern dipper species retain heat during cold winters since they don’t migrate. Additionally, all of these feathers trap tiny air bubbles that give dippers a silvery appearance underwater. This adaptation is quite similar to that of penguins and is thought to serve a similar purpose – increased swim speed due to something called “air lubrication.”

11. Nasal Flaps

Dippers possess many other adaptations, not at all common in the songbird community. This includes special nasal membranes, called nasal flaps, that the dipper can close when underwater to prevent water from getting into the nose and lungs.

12. Unusual Eyes

American dipper with white eyelids
Dippers, like this American dipper, have white eyelids thought to be used as a communication method. Photo by Steve Valasek / CC BY-NC 2.0

Dippers have very specially adapted irises that possess stronger than usual sphincter muscles, called focus muscles. These enable the dipper to alter the curvature of their eye lens so that they can alter their vision depending on whether they are in the water or the air. They also have something called a nictitating membrane. Although virtually all birds possess this special eyelid and utilize it when flying to protect the eyes from air and debris, dippers also utilize this eyelid underwater to aid their vision beneath the surface.

Additionally, dippers have white-feathered eyelids, which makes it incredibly obvious (and somewhat mesmerizing) when they blink. Males have been seen blinking rapidly, presumably to literally catch the eye of females, though since females also possess white eyelids it’s unlikely that this is purely a trait that evolved for breeding. It’s thought to be a general communication tactic amongst dippers, used for everything from gaining a mate’s attention to warning others of possible danger.

13. Clever Nests

dipper bird nest on a cliff
Dippers often build their large nests on steep cliffs to help protect chicks. Photo by Frank D. Lospalluto / CC BY-NC 2.0

Dipper nests are rather unusual. At first glance, the nest appears to be a globe-like structure made of mosses and grasses that can be as large as a basketball – pretty massive for a relatively small bird! Upon closer inspection, however, the nest actually contains another, inner layer made of small roots, bark, leaves, grass, and sometimes various types of hair and feathers, which somewhat resembles a cup.

This layered nest style helps insulate young, but another feature protects them from predators; oftentimes, the entrance to the inner nest will be offset from the entrance to the outer portion of the nest so that it cannot be easily seen or entered except by the parents and young. Entrances are not always offset like this.

American dippers dip the mosses and grasses of the outer nest in water as they assemble it. Since nesting occurs during cold weather before winter has fully relinquished its grip (as early as March), the water freezes and creates an extra protective barrier for chicks against wind and cold, rather like an igloo. The inner nest is not dipped in water and remains dry throughout the season.

14. They Can Be…Flightless?

While most songbirds gradually molt their feathers to replace them with new ones throughout the year, dippers usually lose all of their flight feathers at once. Why? While most birds, songbirds or otherwise, rely on flight to escape predators and other dangers and as such cannot lose all of their flight feathers, dippers have the ability to swim and hold their breath. Losing one’s flight feathers all at once is actually a faster and less energetically expensive feat overall than losing and replacing the feathers on a continual basis, so dippers utilize this strategy and rely on the water to protect them when needed. This means that dippers are flightless for about a week out of the year. This molting strategy is also used by waterfowl like ducks and geese.

15. Famous Dippers

Dippers are fascinating, incredible little birds as you now know after reading this article! For good reason, dippers are coveted by birders and the public alike, though they can be notoriously difficult to find as their calls and songs sound frustratingly similar to many other passerine birds.

Nonetheless, dippers have won the world over. For example, the white-throated (or European) dipper is the national bird of Norway, found throughout the country year-round.

The American dipper was a favorite of naturalist, “Father of the National Parks,” and Sierra Club founder John Muir. Their aquatic nature and silvery appearance beneath the water struck him so deeply that he spent a great deal of time seeking out and observing them in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, describing them in great detail in one of his biographies. He coined the name “water ouzel” for them, a name that is still sometimes used today.

Editor, scholar, and poet Harriet Monroe wrote a poem about American dippers, entitled simply “The Water Ouzel,” in which she describes the way that the dippers would flit and dive through the crashing waterfalls in Yosemite National Park, seemingly without concern or repercussion.

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