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The World's Only Aquatic Songbirds: Dippers!

When you think of the streams of rivers of mountainous places, one typically envisions a trout, a duck, or even amphibians. But the first thing that always come to my mind is a Dipper! One of the most uniquely adapted bird species in the world, these graceful birds are the songbirds of the stream! But there's much more to them than that, so let's take a deeper 'dip' into the wonderful world of Dippers!

Once called the Water Ouzel, these birds are actually related to thrushes. They began populating several million years ago in the Old World, but later spread throughout the New World. Today they consist of five main species:

White-capped Dipper

Rufous-throated Dipper

Brown Dipper

White-throated Dipper

American Dipper

Dipper world range map

Green: American Dipper Red: White-capped Dipper Orange: Rufous-throated Dipper Dark Blue: White-throated Dipper Light Blue: Brown Dipper

The exciting news is how stable their populations are! Only one species is listed as threatened (the Rufous-throated Dipper), so they are a thriving worldwide! But why are they thriving? Well, there's a few answers for this. For one, they have very few predators, except for small mammals, herons, and a rare trout attack. Secondly is that their percentage to raise chicks into adulthood is very high, sometimes as much as 90 percent, they often raise two broods per year! Due largely to the fact there's very little competition and plenty of food to feed them, as well as their nests are nearly impossible to locate. Often constructing them on steep banks, behind waterfalls, in rocky shorelines, old dams and even up under bridges! Some nests have been observed being equivalent in size to a soccer ball!

Take a look at this nesting example:

So, what makes these birds the masters of rivers and streams?

  1. Feather quality and quantity

Expectedly their feathers are indeed waterproof but there's a secret behind that. In order to make their feathers waterproof they secret an oil from their preen glands that 'waterproof' their feathers in order to swim and chase prey. A large amount of down feathers also keep the bird warm in the mountain rivers and streams while it dives and dips. The average amount of of these feathers on a Dipper is 4,200, while compared to a Robin's average of 3,000!

2. They're naturally talented swimmers

All Dippers are skilled swimmers, divers, and predators. They use many tactics including diving straight into rapids where they forage for oncoming food, using their strong toes to forage on the bottom of a river bed and swimming upstream using their wings as paddles. But they are unable to forage underwater if not for a flap that folds over the nostrils in order to seal them, along with blood that holds a large amount of oxygen so they can stay underwater for over half a minute. Dippers eyes are also a key adaptation, as the focus muscles within them can actually change the curvature of the eye lens to enhance their vision underwater!

3. Thermoregulation

Dippers need more than a thick coat of waterproof down feathers, as they may forage in water temperatures lower than 40 degrees F, they need a body systems that's built for the cold. Dippers have adapted to battle this issue as well, with thermoregulation. Thermoregulation is when an organism has the ability to keep it's body temperature within a certain range, even if the surrounding temperature is much different. Dippers are exceedingly good as this adaptational trait. In fact they're so good at withstanding the cold that a small population of White-throated Dippers in Siberia has been able to forage in water when the outside air temperature is a below -60 degrees F during the winter!

Now for an exciting question: why do they "dip"?

We don't really know! Scientists have assumptions such as to help conceal themselves from prey, visibly find prey easier and as a form of communication. Whatever the true reason is, it's one of the most distinctive and unique bird behaviors in the world as no other species 'dips' and 'bobs' like they do. Their former name, the Water Ouzel, dates back much longer than the name "dipper". The American Dipper was first described in 1827, (although the specimen was actually found in Mexico), but were first discovered in the late 1700s, with the White-throated Dipper being the first known species observed. The name 'Water Ouzel' was given to them as they seemed to resemble blackbirds, specifically the Ring Ouzel. Part of all their scientific names, contains the root word cinclus, based off the Greek word kinklos that was used to describe "small, tail-waggering birds residing near water", so both the words 'ouzel' and 'cinclus' relate to the birds behavior. Water Ouzel is still known today as the definitive name by many people across the world.

(A photo from my portfolio along the swan river, Montana)

Juvenile American Dippers, as pictured here, are distinctive from the adults because of their pale barring see in the picture above.

Dippers are one of my favorite birds to photograph, they've got it all! Dipping, diving, catching prey, nesting, perching in the flowing water, and of course always adds creativity and an eye catching look to any photograph! But it's not all about photography, because these birds are a species that has adapted like no other! From their ringing songs to their amazing ability to capture their prey, it proves that while humans may have succeeded in our significant intelligence over and above all other animal species, physically we cannot even come close to other species' capabilities.. especially the Dippers. As they only live a few years, it's impossible not to admire them during every encounter. So just remember, if you're at a river or mountain stream in the highlands of the Americas, Europe, Asia, or even Morocco, you may think of fish, or a duck, or even... a Dipper! I'm hoping for the latter for all of you out that of course!

In addition to what can be found in my photography portfolio, the following dipper photographs are some of my favorite I've been fortunate enough to capture over time:

(Taken on the Elwha River, WA)

(Taken on the Swan River, Montana)

(Taken on the Swan River, Montana)

(Taken on the Lamar River, Yellowstone National Park)


About Us


Join Jameson and Jaxson, two adventurous brothers who are embarking on an incredible journey through the untamed wonders of nature. Their passion for wildlife, photography, and exploration has led them to discover new animals, capture breathtaking moments, and share their extraordinary experiences with the world.

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