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American Dipper

American Dipper, The Aquatic Songbird


American Dipper, photo by Nels Rasmussen, D.C.

The American Dipper is the only North American song bird that is also a shore bird and often you can hear their shrill musical notes over the rapids of the rivers where they dwell. The Dipper gets its name because it perches on rocks and branches in swift waters and dips or bounces 40 to 60 times per minute. An earlier name for this bird was, “Water Ouzel.” An Ouzel referred to the Thrush family of birds, but the Dipper is not a Thrush. A local name around the Darrington area fondly given to this bird is, “Teeterass.” This plump small bird averages 8 inches long with Greyish plumage and a stubby tail and is wonderfully adapted to living a life in the torrent rivers where few other animals could exist. The Dipper has very strong feet and legs and uses its wings to force it to the bottom allowing it to run at high speeds under water. Moveable flaps can cover the nostrils, nictitating membranes cover and protect the eyes allowing them to see under water and very large Preen Glands secrete 10 times more oil than any other song bird allowing this bird to withstand very cold conditions.

The American Dipper standing effortlessly in the swift waters, photo by Cal Thomas

The Dipper will claim a territory averaging about 500 feet over the swiftest rapids or waterfalls. Somewhere towards the middle of this territory they will select their nesting spot and build their nest on down logs, rock ledges or bridge beams where there is spray. The Dipper nest is constructed of mud and moss with a side entrance and is often used year after year. The spray keeping the moss moist will continue to grow making the nest stronger and quite hard to see. The average clutch is 2 to 4 eggs and they will hatch in 15 to 17 days, at 20 to 25 days after hatching the chicks will be fledglings and will soon seek their own territory. The Dipper is not a migratory bird and will remain in its territory unless their rivers and streams dry up or completely freeze.