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American Dipper

These birds are known for their energetic behavior, melodious songs, and their preference for nesting behind waterfalls.

The extraordinary behavior of the American Dipper can come as a surprise to those who are not familiar with it. Its habit of bobbing up and down gave it its name, but when the American Dipper plunges from a slippery rock into a cold and raging mountain stream and disappears for a moment or two, one might expect never to see it again. Then, it reappears just as quickly to a streamside rock, having likely just captured a meal of aquatic insects or larvae.

Unlike most birds which spend time underwater, dippers do not have webbed feet. Instead, they use their wings to propel them underwater and keep them submerged, and sometimes use their feet to run across the bottom of a stream.

Occupying a broad area of western North America, the American Dipper has a fascinating life history. From its underwater foraging habits to its anatomy and physiology, it is remarkably well adapted to the cold, fast moving streams along which it lives. The inaccessible, streamside nest sites favored by the American Dipper are not abundant, and this limitation is a major factor in limiting its population.

Male American Dippers often return to areas used for breeding in the previous year, but few juveniles return to natal areas. Young dippers can breed in their first year after hatching. The oldest known American Dipper in the wild lived over 7 years.

Description of the American Dipper


The American Dipper has a stocky build, a very short, cocked tail, and is mostly gray in color with a brownish head.
Length 8 in.  Wingspan: 11 in.

American Dipper


Same as male.

Seasonal change in appearance



Juveniles resemble adults, but have faint, pale barring below. Generally lighter underneath, with light bill instead of dark.


American Dippers primarily inhabit fast flowing mountain streams, but also some coastal and desert streams.


American Dippers eat aquatic insects.

American Dipper

Photograph © Alan Wilson


American Dippers forage by walking or “”lying” underwater and probing for insects. They incessantly dip up and down when perched.


American Dippers are resident across much of the mountainous western U.S. and Canada, as well as south to Central America. The North American population appears to be stable.

More information:

Bent Life History

Visit the Bent Life History for extensive additional information on the American Dipper.

Wing Shape

The shape of a bird’s wing is often an indication of its habits and behavior. Fast flying birds have long, pointed wings. Soaring birds have long, broad wings. Different songbirds will have a slightly different wing shape. Some species look so much alike (Empidonax flycatchers) that scientists sometimes use the length of specific feathers to confirm a species’ identification.

– Male, Washington, Dec.

– Underside of same wing

Wing images from the University of Puget Sound, Slater Museum of Natural History

Fun Facts

American Dippers have a low metabolic rate and especially oxygen-rich blood to survive foraging in icy waters.

The American Dipper is the only aquatic passerine in North America.


The song includes a series of high, trilled phrases, while the call is a sharp “zeet.”

Similar Species


The dippers habitat, behavior and appearance make it difficult to confuse with any other species.


The American Dipper’s nest is a dome of moss placed above a stream or behind a waterfall.

Number: 4-5.

Color: white.

Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 13-17 days, and leave the nest in about another 18-25 days, though continuing to associate with the adults for some time.

Bent Life History of the American Dipper

Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.

Bent Life History for the American Dipper – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.




From northwestern Alaska and northeastern British Columbia southward to southern California and New Mexico, the dipper, or water ouzel, enjoys a wide distribution throughout the mountain ranges of western North America as far east as the eastern foothills of the Rocky Mountains, wherever it can find clear, cool, rushing mountain streams, with waterfalls, cascades, rapids and quiet pools, among which it loves to dwell, and to which it is strictly confined. Our bird differs from the type of the species, now understood to be mainly confined to Mexico and Central America, in paler coloration with the head and neck less decidedly brown, though not entirely free from this color, hence the name unicolor.

The dipper lives at different elevations in various parts of its range, where it is permanently resident, but obliged to seek the lower levels when winter freezes the upper reaches of the streams. Nelson (1887) found it “at the headwaters of the Yukon,” as well as “along the shores of Norton and Kotzebue Sounds, where the small streams flow into the sea.” We saw only one pair in the Aleutian Islands, on an inland mountain stream near a little waterfall at Unalaska, not much above sea level; Lucien M. Turner (1886) says that it is not common in these islands, but is a permanent resident.

We found it at Ketchikan, Alaska, on the stream that dashes down from the mountains just back of the town, and on the coast of British Columbia, not far from salt water. In the Yellowstone Park, M. P. Skinner observed it at levels ranging from 5,300 to well above the 8,000-foot level. Grinnell and Storer (1924) record it in the “Canadian and Hudsonian zones at altitudes of from 2,000 to 10,000 feet, and is continuously resident, even under the rigors of the Sierran winter, up as high as water remains open,” in the Yosemite region. In Colorado, according to Sclater (1912), it ranges from 5,000 feet up to timberline at 11,500 feet. And Mrs. Bailey (1928) records it in New Mexico as low as 7,000 and as high as 11,600 feet. The American dipper seems to reach its southern limits in Arizona; we saw one in Ramsey Canyon on April 13, 1922, and Swarth (1904b) saw one in the same place in the Huachuca Mountains on August 4, 1902. We explored the lower portion of Sabino Canyon, at the southern end of the Catalina Mountains, but saw no dippers there. Charles T. Vorhies (1921), however, found a pair on two occasions in this canyon, eight or ten miles up from the mouth of the rocky stream; he thought they were probably resident there.

No better account of the American dipper has ever been written than John Muir’s (1894) chapter on the water ouzel; I cannot do better than to quote freely from it, as it covers the ground most beautifully. Of its characteristic haunts, he writes:

Among all the countless waterfalls I have met in the course of ten years’ exploration In the Sierra, whether among the icy peaks, or warm foot-hills, or in the profund yosemitic cañons of the middle region, not one was found without its Ouzel. No cañon is too cold for this little bird, none too lonely, provided it be rich in falling water. Find a fall, or cascade, or rushing rapid, anywhere upon a clear stream, and there you will surely find its complementary Ouzel, flitting about in the spray, diving in foaming eddies, whirling like a leaf among beaten foam-bells; ever vigorous and enthusiastic, yet self-contained, and neither seeking nor shunning your company. * * * He is the mountain streams’ own darling, the humming-bird of blooming waters, loving rocky ripple-slopes and sheets of foam as a bee loves flowers, as a lark loves sunshine and meadows.

But the water ouzel, as I prefer to call it, is not wholly confined at all times to the mountain streams and waterfalls. Several observers have seen it on the shores of lakes, or feeding in them at considerable depths.

Taylor and Shaw (1927) observed several birds “on the quiet waters of the Tahoma Creek beaver pond,” on Mount Rainier; and “water ouzels were frequently seen swinging low over the water near the shores of Reflection and Mowich Lakes, apparently as much at home as in the cascading creeks below.”

Referring to Yellowstone Park, Mr. Skinner (1922) writes: “Only once have I seen one away from water and then he was flying over the quarter mile stretch between two streams. I have seen them on streams not more than two feet wide in the fir forests; along ditches, if the water be but clear and running; and occasionally, in November, along a ditch watering a barn yard. They live about beaver ponds.”

Courtship: Clyde E. Ehinger (1930) watched a pair of dippers flying down a stream, keeping close together, and acting in a manner that seemed to suggest mating antics. He says:

A typical incident of the kind was noted on February 6. A smaller and lighter colored bird: which I believe to have been a female—was observed spreading and fluttering her wings and closely following the bird which was singing. At times she would run rapidly toward him, with head lowered, wings extended and in rapid motion. These charging motions were repeated again and again, the male however, apparently giving but scant heed. It seemed quite obvious that the advances—at the time—were mainly made by the female, although the male gave vent to ardent bursts of song when the female flew to or past him. It seemed as though the little lady gave expression to her feelings chiefly by means of muscular movements and attitudes while her admirer expressed his passions by means of sweet melodies.

Nesting: The water ouzel builds a beautiful and unique nest, unique in structure and unique in location. The characteristic location, and probably the usual location under primitive conditions, is close to and almost in its beloved mountain stream, often far from the haunts of man, sometimes under a waterfall hidden by the falling torrent, sometimes fully exposed to view on a rock in midstream, but more often on some narrow ledge on the face of a rocky cliff among mosses and ferns, where it is beautifully camouflaged and constantly wet with flying spray or mist. Muir (1894) describes it very well as follows:

The Ouzel’s nest is one of the most extraordinary pieces of bird architecture I ever saw, odd and novel in design, perfectly fresh and beautiful, and in every way worthy of the genius of the little builder. It is about a foot in diameter, round and bossy in outline, with a neatly arched opening near the bottom, somewhat like an old-fashioned brick oven, or Hottentot’s hut. It is built almost exclusively of green and yellow mosses, chiefly the beautiful fronded hypnum that covers the rocks and old drift-logs in the vicinity of waterfalls. These are deftly interwoven, and felted together into a charming little hut; and so situated that many of the outer mosses continue to flourish as if they had not been plucked. A few fine, silky-stemmed grasses are occasionally found interwoven with the mosses, but, with the exception of a thin layer lining the floor, their presence seems accidental, as they are of a species found growing with the mosses and are probably plucked with them. * * *

In choosing a building-spot, concealment does not seem to be taken Into consideration; yet notwithstanding the nest is large and guilelessly exposed to view, it is far from being easily detected, chiefly because it swells forward like any other bulging moss-cushion growing naturally in such situations. This is more especially the case where the nest is kept fresh by being well sprinkled. Sometimes these romantic little huts have their beauty enhanced by rock-ferns and grasses that spring up around the mossy walls, or in front of the door-sill, dripping with crystal beads.

Nests are not always placed on rocks; several have been reported as built among the upturned roots of fallen trees, near or over the water. Mrs. Wheelock (1904) reports one that “was located on a smooth granite boulder that rose from the white foam of the American River in the Sierra Nevada. Resting half on the rock and half in the stream was a fallen tree trunk, and under the shelter of this on the slippery rock the Ouzel had woven his little moss nest, kept fresh and green by the spray that dashed over it.”

Since man has invaded some of the ouzel’s mountain haunts, the birds have learned to use man-made structures, little daunted by human activities in the vicinity. A number of nests have been observed under bridges that were in regular use. Such nests were built against or upon the girders or the supporting beams, often close up to the planking; the nest in such a situation had to be made to fit the available space; sometimes there was not room for the usual dome, which, of course, was not needed for protection; an occasional bridge nest may be entirely open at the top, like a phoebe’s nest. Dean Amadon tells me that he found a dipper’s nest, in Wyoming, that was under a bridge on a main improved road; it was 4 feet above the water on top of a supporting beam. Nests have been found under bridges in villages. Two rather remarkable cases of such familiarity with civilization have been recorded. Many years ago, Dr. Cooper (Suckley and Cooper, 1860) wrote:

I found a nest of this bird at a saw mill down on the Chehalis river. It was built under the shelving roots of an immense arbor-vitae, which bad floated over and rested In a slanting position against the dam. The floor was made of small twigs and bare, the sides and roof arching over it like an oven, and formed of moss projecting above so as to shelter the opening. This was large enough to admit the hand, and the Inside very capacious. It contained half-fledged young. The old birds were familiar and fearless, being accustomed to the noise of the mill and the society of the men, who were much interested by their curious habits. They bad already raised a brood in the same nest that summer.

In a small village in Modoc County, Calif., Charles L. ‘Whittle (1921) traced a water ouzel to its nest in a wooden lean-to, or shed, in the rear of the village bank, built of brick. “As close inspection as possible revealed the bird’s somewhat bulky nest placed on a horizontal timber near where it joined a rafter and close against the end of the shed. The nest was placed directly over and some 8 feet above the water,” which flowed swiftly under the shed.

Nest-building seems to be performed mainly, if not wholly, by the female in a most ingenious manner. This is fully described in some extracts from the notebooks of Denis Gale, published by Junius Henderson (1908), to which the reader is referred, as his account is too long to be included here.

Aretas A. Saunders tells me that, in Montana, “some dipper nests, built on rocks, are without a bottom or lining, the eggs being deposited on the rocks, the nest being merely a roof, side walls and the usual front entrance, made of woven moss.”

Samuel F. Rathbun refers in his notes to a dipper’s nest in an unusual location: It was placed on the sloping top of a stump, and at a height of three feet above the surface of a small, swiftly running stream in the mountain foothills. There was a cavity of some size in the top of the stump, and this was completely filled with a mass of fresh moss, some of which had been worked into the under side of the nest proper to aid, in its attachment. The whole affair resembled a roughly-shaped ball of green moss on the top of the stump, which was in plain view in an open spot just within the water’s edge. But since there was a considerable growth of moss on the side of the stump, it helped to make the mass of moss less noticeable.

Mr. Saunders writes to me of another well-concealed nest: “There was a small waterfall about 2 feet high and near it I saw a dipper with food in its bill. There was moss on the rocks all around the fall, but I saw no nest. Then the bird went to a vertical wall of moss near the fall, and evidently fed young. When it had gone, I investigated and the moment my hand touched the wall of moss several young popped out of a hole in the moss into the pool below the fall. The nest, from external appearance, was merely a hole in the moss wall, back of which there was a niche in the rock.”

Eggs: The American dipper lays from three to six eggs in a set, usually four or five. These are ovate in shape, sometimes slightly elongated and often somewhat pointed at the small end. They are pure, dead white and entirely unmarked. The measurements of 50 eggs average 25.9 by 18.5 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 28.5 by 19.1, 26.2 by 19.5, 24.0 by 19.0, and 25.0 by 17.0 millimeters.

Young: According to J. A. Steiger (1940), “the female’ alone covers the eggs during incubation, and about the thirteenth day hatching occurs. * * * After about 18 days of rapid growth, the fledglings file from the crowded nest. Amidst raucous calling, the experimenting young follow the creek. Flying at short distances, the parents entice their charges from rock to rock, seeming to encourage them to greater and braver acts.”

Dr. A. H. Cordier (1927) built a platform within 6 feet of a water ouzel’s nest, from which the following observations were made: “The female did most of the feeding. * * * On one occasion when my head was within 18 inches of the nest, the female lit on the face of a slick rock 3 feet from the nest, but only for a second. She had in her beak a small rainbow trout, which she delivered to one of the young birds. Although there were four young birds, at no feeding did I see more than two gaping mouths protruding from the nest’s entrance.” The feeding visits of the male “were about 1 to 10 as compared with those of the female,” and Dr. Cordier continues:

The female fed about 8 times per hour. The male fed oftenest between 10 and 2 o’clock, at which time the combined feeding visits averaged 12 per hour. I noticed that the male made most of his visits to the nest while the female was brooding. She entered the nest by crawling over the young birds, turned about within the nest cavity and remained far back in the nest. At such times when the male made his visits, she remained in the nest, the young birds protruding their heads from beneath her breast to receive food from the male. * * *

The birds are extremely cleanly in their habits. As the interior of the nest was often inspected, any excrement found adhering to a straw or piece of moss was carefully picked up and carried away. The young birds when defecating turned the tail toward the nest entrance and with a well marked expulsive effort shot foecal mass 4 to 6 inches from the nest These masses were always enclosed in a membrane. Many of them rolled unbroken down the rocky incline into the water and were carried down stream. Those remaining were picked up by the female and removed. * * * One bird only was fed at a feeding visit.

Probably two broods usually are raised in a season under favorable circumstances throughout most of the dipper’s range, though this is hardly likely in the more northern regions. The young are much more precocial than are the young of other passerine birds. They seem to know instinctively, as soon as they leave the nest, how to run, climb, dive and swim, or flutter along the surface of the water; they soon become as much at home in the water as their parents.

Claude T. Barnes has sent me the following interesting account: “On July 24, 1980, while I was in City Creek Canyon, near Salt Lake City, Utah, at an altitude of about 6,000 feet, it was my rare good fortune to see a water ouzel feeding its young. Sitting idly beside the noisy stream, I first heard a continuous cry, which resembled somewhat the stridulation of a locust, yet more, in its lusty character, the squeal of a mouse, distinct above the brook’s purling and extended for three or four minutes at a time. Puzzled, I waited until the cause appeared; a young water ouzel, nearly as large as its mother, hopped to a stone on the opposite bank, constantly making the crying sound, which I thought now similar to the noise of a fighting hummingbird. The mother ouzel was ahead, wading the stream, diving occasionally into the water, and busying herself with the finding of worms and grubs. As she did this the young bird cried, watched her, followed her, flipped its wings, and, every few moments, made the characteristic bob of the species. Finally the mother got a grub; and, as if aware of the fact, the little one began violently to agitate its wings and to cry more greedily for its dinner. The mother ouzel flew to it, placed the grub in its mouth, and indifferently went to work again. Satisfied for the moment, the young one dipped its head into the water, ceased crying, and rested, only to become apprehensive about the mother’s progress away, and to renew its crying and watchful following. For the most part, it kept close to the edges where the water was but an inch or so deep and protruding stones were numerous, though, now and again, it flew a few yards across an inconvenient bend. Away they went down stream, around a bend, out of sight.”

Mrs. Amelia S. Allen has sent me an interesting note on the feeding of a young ouzel. The mother (?) “alighted near the young bird and tried to place a fat insect in its beak. The baby dropped it. The mother picked it up, flew across to a dead branch that sloped down to the water, dipped the insect into the water, then flew back to the youngster. Again he fumbled. The mother picked up the insect again, flew across to the same branch, walked along it to the edge of the water, dipped the insect in and returned to the baby. At last the insect was swallowed.”

Fred Evenden, Jr., sends me the following note: “After a while I moved in close again to the nest while both parents were gone. I remained motionless, but even then they detected me when they returned. The female returned alone and hopped around on a rock in midstream and then flew to the water’s edge about 3 feet from me. Then she went to the rock in midstream and gave what must have been an alarm note, for almost immediately her mate came upstream and they talked to each other and then both of them defiantly took it upon themselves to scold me. I left the spot for I didn’t want to keep them from bringing food to their young. This alarm note I mentioned went this way. Several short and high notes with a rasping trill at the end. The female gave this call twice.”

Plumages: I have not seen any small nestlings, but Mr. Steiger (1940) says that “from the first, the young Ouzel has a complete coat of down.”

This down becomes a necessary protection by the time that the young bird takes its first plunge, at an early age, into the cold water.

In the juvenal plumage, the young bird is somewhat like the adult, but paler generally, and the under parts are suffused or mottled with very pale buff or buffy white; the chin and throat are mainly white; and the greater wing coverts are narrowly tipped with grayish white. This plumage is worn through the summer and into September; I have seen a bird in juvenal plumage as late as September 6. I don’t know how extensive the postjuvenal molt is, but it evidently involves the contour plumage at least.

The first winter plumage of the young bird is similar to that of the adult, with perhaps a little more white on the underparts.

Adults have a complete postnuptial molt in July and August; II have seen adults in fresh plumage as early as August 20. Ridgway (1904) says that fall and winter adults have the “feathers of nearly all under parts more or less distinctly (always narrowly) margined with whitish, the larger wing-coverts and tertials (sometimes also secondaries, innermost primaries, and rectrices) also narrowly margined at tips with white, a narrow whitish mark on each eyelid, and the bill horn brownish.”

Food: The water ouzel obtains most of its food in, on, or under the water of the streams on which it lives. It is very fond of the larvae of the caddicefly, for which it probes around and under the small stones on bottom; there it also finds water-bugs, water-beetles, the larvae of other insects, aquatic worms, and other forms of animal life that live in such places. John Muir (1894) writes attractively:

He seems to be especially fond of the larvae of mosquitoes, found in abundance attached to the bottom of smooth rock channels where the current is shallow. When feeding in such places he wades up-stream, and often while his head is under water the swift current is deflected upward along the glossy curves of the neck and shoulders, in the form of a clear, crystalline shell, which fairly incloses him like a bell-glass, the shell being broken and re-formed as he lifts and dips his head; while ever and anon he sidles out to where the too powerful current carries him off his feet; then he dexterously rises on the wing and goes gleaning again in shallower places.

Mayflies, caddiceflies, and other insects often drop into the pools, or the quiet reaches of the stream, or are washed down over the waterfalls; under the waterfalls are favorite feeding places; and, on the more quiet surfaces, the ouzel swims like a duck, using its feet as paddles, or flaps along the surface with the help of its wings, and picks up the floating insects, if it can do so before the trout rise to snap them up. Under the overhanging banks, under logs, or under the shelter of rocks and stones, where trout fry or other small fish are hiding, it seeks such finny prey. Often fish as much as 2 or 3 inches in length are captured, taken ashore, and killed by vigorous beating; some of these escape, and others, too big to swallow, are abandoned.

In cold weather, or high up in the mountains, the dipper has been seen to pick up frozen insects from the ice of lakes, or from snowbanks after the manner of rosy finches. Junius Henderson (1927) makes the surprising statement, on the authority of Prof. Aughey (1st Rep. U. S. Ent. Comm., 1878), that dippers “have been observed catching locusts” in Nebraska. J. A. Steiger (1940),says that “at times they make water cress and other aquatic flora part of their diet.”

Unfortunately for the dipper’s welfare, it is too fond of the spawn and small fry of salmon and trout, and it is tempted to feed on them freely when and where they are easily available. This habit has made many enemies for the dipper among sportsmen and especially among the managers of fish hatcheries. The damage done to wild salmon and trout by this bird is probably not serious under natural conditions, for these fish are known to lay vastly more eggs than can ever hatch, many eggs eaten by the dipper are known to be infertile, and vastly more fry are hatched than can possibly survive; I have seen it estimated that, if all fish eggs hatched and the fry grew to maturity, the oceans would soon be packed solid full of fish. Furthermore, the spawning grounds of both salmon and trout are mainly in waters not often frequented by the dippers, as these birds live mainly on the rapid mountain streams rather than on the slower valley streams and spawning grounds where they are rarely seen.

Under the artificial conditions prevailing at fish hatcheries, it is a different story; here the dippers undoubtedly do considerable damage. J. A. Munro (1924) made a study of the relation of the dipper to fishing interests in British Columbia and Alberta; I offer a few quotations from his report. The manager of the Skeena River hatchery offered the suggestion that “if naturally it eats a few salmon fry and ova, it will balance this by eating ova and fry of the salmon enemies.” The Banif hatchery reported that “during the winter of 1921: 22 not less than 10,000 advanced Cut-Throat trout fry were taken from the ponds and destroyed by these birds.” In summing up all the evidence that he gathered, Mr. Munro said that “it will be noted that little evidence has been presented in reference to their consumption of spawn and this is evidently not considered serious by the fishery officials. * * * The destruction of fry is perhaps a more serious offence but we have little evidence that this takes place to an alarming degree under natural conditions, the complaints having reference to the destruction of artificially propagated fry after they have been placed in the retaining ponds. It has been noted that these small fish swim continually along the shores of the ponds, seeking an outlet perhaps, and so fall an easy prey to Dippers, Kingfishers or other birds that may be attracted to this bountiful supply of food. * * * The practice of shooting these birds in order to protect the fry has not had the desired effect,” as new birds come in to take the places of those that are shot. “The obvious remedy is to screen the surface of retaining ponds with fine mesh wire netting. This will adequately protect the fry and render it unnecessary to destroy a song bird of high aesthetic value.”

A. Dawes DuBois writes to me: “Mr. Baigrie Sutherland, then forest rang5 in the Flathead National Forest for the district having its ranger station at Belton on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, told me on the 24th of August, 1915, that he saw a water ouzel eating fish offal which he had thrown into the edge of the water.”

Behavior: It is indeed strange that a land bird, a song bird, and one so closely related to the wrens and the thrushes should adopt so many of the habits of the grebes and the ducks, for it is an expert diver and a good swimmer. Its feet are not webbed, of course, but its legs and toes are long, and its flexor muscles are very strong, enabling it to hold firmly to the rocks and stones against a strong current, to climb over the slippery rocks, or to swim fast enough for its purposes. The water ouzel is also well equipped otherwise for aquatic life, as pointed out by Grinnell and Storer (1924):

The covering of feathers on the body is thicker and denser than in either the thrushes or wrens, to which the dipper is closely related. Also, the ends of the feathers are somewhat more loosely formed, as in many of the true water birds, and this seems to help in keeping the plumage from soaking up water. Each nostril is covered by a movable scale, obviously to exclude water when need be. The oil gland at the upper base of the tail is about ten times as large in the dipper as in related land-dwelllng birds of equivalent size, and the bird makes frequent use of the product of the gland to dress its feathers. The stout but tapered form of the body, the short tail, the short rounded wings, and the stout legs and feet all would seem to be of advantage to a bird living along and in swiftly moving waters.

The flight of the ouzel cannot be better described than in the following quotations from Muir’s (1894) charming account:

The Ouzel, born on the brink of the stream, or on a snag or boulder in the midst of it, seldom leaves it for a single moment. For, notwithstanding he Is often on the wing, he never flies overland, but whirs with rapid, quail-like beat above the stream, tracing all its windings. Even when the stream is quite small, say from 5 to 10 feet wide, he seldom shortens his flight by crossing a bend, however abrupt it may be; and even when disturbed by meeting some one on the bank, he prefers to fly over one’s head, to dodging out over the ground. * * *

The vertical curves and angles of the most precipitous torrents he traces with the same rigid fidelity, swooping down the inclines of the cascades, dropping sheer over dizzy falls amid the spray, and ascending with the same fearlessness and ease, seldom seeking to lessen the steepness of the acclivity by beginning to ascend before reaching the base of the fall. No matter though it may be several hundred feet in height he holds straight on, as if about to dash headlong into the throng of booming rockets, then darts abruptly upward, and, after alighting at the top of the precipice to rest a moment, proceeds to feed and sing: His flight is solid and impetuous, without any intermission of wing-beats, —one homogeneous buzz like that of a laden bee on its way home.

Mr. Skinner’s (1922) account of its flight is only slightly different: “Only once have I seen one away from water and then he was flying over the quarter mile stretch between two streams. * * * The flight is direct and the wing beats are very rapid for 100 feet, then the Dipper coasts along 10 feet with the acquired momentum before taking up its wing strokes again. * * * A bird will come flying down one stream, turn an acute angle at the mouth of a second stream, and then go buzzing merrily up it after flying three times as far rather than cross the neck of land between the two streams.”

Dippers are solitary birds and are usually seen singly, rarely in pairs, except during the breeding season, and very rarely as many as three or four together unless it be a group of parents and young. Muir (1894) once watched three of these birds—

spending a winter morning in company, upon a small glacier lake, on the Upper Merced, about 7,500 feet above the level of the sea. * * * The portion of the lake bottom selected for a feeding-ground lies at a depth of 15 or 20 feet below the surface, and Is covered with a short growth of algæ and other aquatic plants, —facts I had previously determined while sailing over it on a raft. After alighting on the glassy surface, they occasionally indulged In a little play, chasing one another round about in small circles; thou all three would suddenly dive together, and then come ashore and sing.

The Ouzel seldom swims more than a few yards on the surface for, not being web-footed, he makes rather slow progress, but by means of his strong, crisp wings he swims, or rather flies, with celerity under the surface, often to considerable distances. But it is in withstanding the force of heavy rapids that his strength of wing in this respect is most strikingly manifested.

Dr. James A. Henshall (1901), who had some good opportunities to watch ouzels in the clear waters of trout hatchery ponds, writes: “I have seen them plunge into the water, while flying, and continue their flight under the surface for the length of the pond. I have also seen them dive, like kingfishers, from the top of the drain boxes into the water. Then again, I have observed them leave the shore and swim away on the surface like so many ducklings.”

Opinions differ as to how long an ouzel can remain under water; I have seem it stated as 10 seconds; Dr. A. H. Cordier (1927) noted one-half minute as the longest he had observed; Muir (1894) implies that it can remain under 2 or 3 minutes, but he probably made a wild guess at it!

Some observers claim that ouzels do not use their wings in swimming under water, but most of them now seem to agree that they do; certainly it hardly seems reasonable to think that they could progress rapidly enough or swim strongly enough with feet that are so poorly adapted for swimming. I believe that they not only can enter the water flying but also can come out of it flying.

It seems strange that a bird that spends so much time in the water and in flying spray should be in need of a bath, but Mr. Skinner (1922) has seen one plunging into the water with the evident purpose of bathing; he has seen one stand in shallow water and flutter its wings in true bird-bath fashion; and he says that “on early winter mornings, sunbaths are the regular thing. One cloudy morning I noted a Dipper do the next best thing: warm himself and bask luxuriously in the steam from some cooled geyser water that was still much warmer than the keen, winter air. While swimming on the water, a Dipper goes along nodding his head quite like a miniature rail, or a coot. In many ways Dippers suggest wrens. They are small and quick; they often perk up their short tails at a steep angle; and they are forever exploring every nook and cranny of their domain.”

The water ouzel usually alights on rocks or snags in the mountain streams, but it has been known to alight occasionally in trees near its habitat. Dr. C. Hart Merriam (1899) says: “One afternoon just before dark (6 o’clock) I was surprised to see an ouzel fly up into the dead top of a tree, light on a branch, and climb up several feet on the trunk with his short tail hanging straight down, after the manner of a woodpecker.”

Late one afternoon, Mr. Ehinger (1930) found one of the birds singing “at the foot of the steep bank where they had previously been seen to disappear under the shelving sod and roots.” This suggested a nightly roosting place, and “a little careful investigation confirmed this fact as two of the birds at dusk, retired under the cover and did not reappear.”

Everyone who has seen a dipper must have noticed one of its characteristic habits, from which its name may have been derived. When perched on a rock or snag it is almost constantly dipping, nodding, or bobbing, or teetering. It has also been called the “teeter bird.” But it is not really a teetering like that of the spotted sandpiper, nor is it really nodding, for there is no downward nod of the head or up and down movement of the tail. It is a strictly vertical movement of the whole body, accomplished by bending the long legs to a crouching position and then raising them to a high standing position; this produces a perpendicular movement of the body, up and down, for a distance of an inch or more, and is quite different from such movements in other birds. This dipping is rapid, often at the rate of from 40 to 60 times a minute, or about once a second. Mr. Steiger (1940) suggests that, as the dipper “does not seem to have one consistent call note for its mate,” as the noise of rushing torrents often makes its voice difficult to hear, and as its sombre coloring offers no very conspicuous recognition mark, we may “interpret the dipping as an effective device for communication. This bobbing serves as a wig-wag, drawing the attention of the mate, or, when used by young, to draw the attention of parent birds. The logic of this explanation finds support in two behavior patterns. Flush the Dipper and you will note repeatedly that upon alighting again the dipping will be more frequent. Each time the bird takes a new location, this increased dipping is striking. It is also clear that older birds do not resort to dipping so frequently as the young.”

Notwithstanding the fact that the dipper prefers to live in the mountain solitudes, far from the haunts of man, it is a tame, confiding species, if not molested. It seems indifferent to our presence; if we sit quietly on a rock beside the stream, even one of its favorite perching places, and do not move a muscle, it may alight beside us, gaze at us intently with its large, liquid eyes for a moment, and then flit away to another rock and begin to sing; several observers have had such an experience. John Muir (1894) saw one “cheerily singing within reach of the flying chips” from a man that was chopping wood on a river bank. “On the lower reaches of the rivers where mills are built, they sing on through the din of the machinery, and all the noisy confusion of dogs, cattle, and workmen.” This does not mean that the ouzel does not need protection, or that it can adapt itself to civilization, for it is slowly disappearing from some of its former haunts where its living conditions have been altered, and it may eventually find a suitable habitat only in some national park or other protected reservation.

A striking habit of the water ouzel, which has caused considerable discussion and difference of opinion, is the frequent winking of either the nictitating membrane or the upper eyelid, which has a narrow border of short, white feathers. Some contend that the wink is produced by the membrane, and some say that it is the eyelid that produces it. As a matter of fact, I believe that it may be produced by either feature of the bird’s anatomy at different times. Grinnell and Storer (1924) say: “The nictitating membrane or ‘third eyelid’ is whitish in the Dipper, and, when drawn backward across the eye, as it is frequently when the bird is above the water, can be seen at a considerable distance. This membrane probably is drawn over the eyeball when the bird is working beneath the surface of the water.” I cannot agree that this last assumption is correct; this membrane is translucent, but not transparent, and would probably impede rather than help the bird’s vision where it would need it most; even the unaided human eye can see under water; and I doubt if the trained eye of the dipper needs this protection.

Mr. Ehinger (1930), “being at very close range noted particularly the winking of the white-edged eyelids and the flash of the third lid or nictitating membrane. When the bird was facing me the winking seemed simultaneous with both eyes; when but one eye was turned toward me the nictitating membrane seemed to flash out from different portions of the eye and at times as though it came from the outer canthus.”

Dr. Cordier (1927) collected considerable evidence on this subject, to which the reader is referred, and made some thorough, close-up observations, which seem to throw considerable light on the subject, and from which I quote as follows:

My observations leading to these conclusions were made at a range of 4 feet to 18 Inches from the bird, extending over several hours each day for several days. The winking in this bird was performed by the action of the nictitating membrane and not by the upper eyelid. The upper eyelid has a well defined white margin. From beneath this, the membrane was flashed in a downward direction in rather an oval shape, extending to the lower border of the cornea. The moving pictures show this membrane very distinctly. The movement is seen to come from above downward, nearly the horizontal width of the upper eyelid. When the bird was in the shadow of the nest cavity, with my eyes within 18 inches of it, I could see the membrane very plainly as it frequently flashed across the eye ball. * * * The true lids in most birds move up and down, the winker moving horizontally. The Water Ouzel is an exception in so far as the movement of the winker [nictitating membrane] is nearly vertical. In no bird can the upper eyelid be made to close and open with the speed of the nictitating membrane. According to the record made by the moving picture camera, there are five frames, or individual pictures, impressed on the film at each flash of the membrane. This represents about one-third of a second to each wink.

* * * On one occasion Mr. Sandahl pressed the button of the camera exactly at the time the bird winked. This picture shows the extent of the membrane’s action from above downward. It also shows the membrane as an oval covering of the eye and not a straight line as would be the case if made by the upper eyelid.

The membrane is called into action to clear the cornea of the watery mist while the bird is near the spray and splashes of falls and rapids. This was beautifully illustrated while the female was in the nest brooding. The flashes of the membrane could plainly be seen. The spray from the nearby falls, with the changing air currents could be seen to enter the nest and with each gust of moistened air, the membrane was called into action with Increased vigor to brush aside the watery vapors from the cornea. This was performed independently of the white margined upper eyelid. The slow eyelid action is in part controlled by volition; the quick action of the membrane is brought about by an unconscious reflex demand.

Each pair of ouzels establishes and defends a definite territory on its home stream, from which trespassing ouzels are driven. As a rule, such territorial rights are respected, but sometimes the invading bird is attacked and forced to retire. During the nesting season and when broods of young have to be fed, such territories are quite extensive and the nests are placed a mile or more apart; Dr. Cordier thought it unusual to find two nests within a mile. But when winter closes some of the upper reaches of the mountain streams, the birds have to become more concentrated at lower levels, and perhaps half a dozen birds may be found within a mile or two. Dawson (1923) mentions finding as many as 37 within a distance of two miles. Even then, though the territories are shorter, they seem to be fairly well maintained.

Voice: The water ouzel is a beautiful singer, singing persistently and almost constantly during most of the year and in all kinds of weather. The song period is at its lowest ebb during the molting and low-water period in August and September, but as soon as winter snows have begun to replenish the mountain streams, early in winter, it begins to build up and the flood tide of joyous music is reached early in spring, mingling with the roar of rushing torrents, and generally to be heard above the music of the cascades. John Muir (1894) pays the following glowing tribute to the song of the ouzel:

As soon as the winter clouds have bloomed, and the mountain treasuries are once more replenished with snow, the voices of the streams and ouzels Increase In strength and richness until the flood season of early summer. Then the torrents chant their noblest anthems, and then is the flood-time of our songster’s melody. As for weather, dark days and sun days are the same to him. * * * Indeed no storm can be more violent than those of the waterfalls in the midst of which he delights to dwell. However dark and boisterous the weather, snowing, blowing, or cloudy, all the same he sings, and with never a note of sadness. No need of spring sunshine to thaw his song, for it never freezes. Never shall you hear anything wintery from his warm breast; no pinched cheeping, no wavering notes between sorrow and joy; his mellow, fluty voice is ever tuned to downright gladness, as free from dejection as cock-crowing. * * *

What may be regarded as the separate songs of the Ouzel are exceedingly difficult of description, because they are so variable and at the same time so confluent. * * * Nearly all of his music is sweet and tender, lapsing from his round breast like water over the smooth lip of a pool, then breaking farther on into a sparkling foam of melodious notes, which glow with subdued enthusiasm, yet without expressing much of the strong, gushing ecstasy of the bobolink or skylark.

The more striking strains are perfect arabesques of melody, composed of a few full, round, mellow notes, embroidered with delicate trills which fade and melt in long slender cadences. In a general way his music is that of the streams refined and spiritualized. The deep booming notes of the falls are in it, the thrills of rapids, the gurgling of margin eddies, the low whispering of level reaches, and the sweet tinkle of separate drops oozing from the ends of mosses and falling into tranquil pools.

After the above beautiful words of worshipful praise, it seems almost a sacrilege to say anything lnore about the voice of the ouzel, but a few call notes, not included in Muir’s account, are worth mentioning. An alarm note, a sharp jigic, jigic, is mentioned by Ehinger (1930) and by others. Grinnell and Storer (1924) write: “The call note is short and rather burred, uttered singly when the dipper is ‘jouncing’ on a rock, or given in rapid series when the bird takes to flight. One of our renderings of it is zit, zit, zit, * * *; another bzeet, or extended to bz-ze-ze-ze-ze-ze-et. It is quite different in character from the song, and resembles in general character the call note of the cañon wren.” Claude T. Barnes writes to me that one he was watching “flew to a wet stone and uttered a single note, cheep, but in a few seconds more it flew upstream uttering a chatter like cheep a la la la, the characteristic notes of the species when flying along a brook.” He also mentions a protesting chatter, “which sounded like eking, ching, ching, ching, ching, ching, uttered more rapidly than I could count the notes and with a thin, tinkle-like sound, as of a large fishing reel clicking. I could hear it distinctly above the roar of the fall. The note was repeated six times in each song or scold, whatever it was.”

Mr. Rathbun tells me that “under favorable conditions many of the notes of this bird’s song carry a long distance. On quiet mornings and when the lake was calm, more than once I heard the song coming from the far side of the lake which was more than a mile away.”

Enemies: Mr. Steiger (1940) writes:

Its natural enemies are many. The water snake, mink, marten, the skunk, weasel and other stream-frequenting animals continuously prey upon the mother and young. Since they build their nests on the ground they are endangered by more predators than are the tree nesters.

Natural selection has developed a remarkable protection for the female Dipper and her brood. During the nesting period and while the young remain dependent, they give no body odor. As most ground-traveling predatory animals depend primarily upon their keen sense or smell, they are in this way effectively disarmed. The survival struggle has made the Dippers enemies expert hunters, and they acquire an uncanny knowledge of the birds’ habits; thus, though protected in this way, destruction is an ever present menace.

The pollution of the streams by refuse from mills and by drainage is doubtless destroying some of the dipper’s food supply, and driving them farther and farther back into the mountains. Some are driven out by too congested settlements, and many hundreds of them are shot at fish hatcheries. They are too much beloved, as cheerful companies along the lonely brooks, to be molested by the trappers and the appreciative anglers.

Fall: Fred M. Packard tells me that, in Estes Park, Colo., “the adults and fledglings remain at the higher altitudes until September; then most of them begin to descend into the lower zones for winter. Stragglers migrate as the upper waters freeze, and some will winter in the park, if the larger streams remain partly free of ice.”

Winter: The dipper is a hardy mountaineer, indifferent to cold and impervious to it. His thick, downy underwear and his coat of dense feathers keep the cold out and the heat in. He lives all winter as far north, or as high up in the mountains, as he can find any open water. And he sings as freely perched on a cake of ice, or in an icy cavern along the shore, as he does from a rock in his summer haunts. Dr. Nelson (1887) had several brought to him “in midwinter from the head of Norton Sound, during a cold period when the thermometer registered as low as -50° at Saint Michaels, and they must frequently endure a temperature of -60°, or even lower, since in the interior the cold is almost invariably much more severe than along the coast. On the Upper Yukon it is also a resident, whence the fur traders brought me wintering specimens.”

Farther south the dippers are forced to retire from the higher parts of the mountains, as the streams freeze and are covered with snow; then they become more crowded on the lower reaches of the streams or rivers, or resort to the shores of open lakes. At that season they often wander even beyond the foothills. Frank L. Farley, of Camrose, Alberta, tells me that he has “several records of its appearance on rapid creeks in the ranching country west of Innisfail, at least 50 miles distant from the Rockies.” And Laurence B. Potter, of Eastend, Saskatchewan, writes me that he has sight records of the dipper “on the swift flowing creeks that form the headwaters of the Frenchman River.”

A fitting closing is this winter picture, drawn by Muir’s (1894) matchless pen:

One mild winter morning, when Yosemite Valley was swept its length from west to east by a cordial snowstorm, I sallied forth to see what I might learn and enjoy. A sort of gray, gloaming-like darkness filled the valley, the huge walls were out of sight, all ordinary sounds were smothered, and even the loudest booming of the falls was at times buried beneath the roar of the heavy-laden blast. The loose snow was already over five feet deep on the meadows, making extended walks impossible without the aid of snowshoes. I found no great difficulty, however, in making my way to a certain ripple on the river where one of my ouzels lived. He was at home, busily gleaning his breakfast among the pebbles of a shallow portion of the margin, apparently unaware of anything extraordinary in the weather. Presently he flew out to a stone against which the icy current was beating, and turning his back to the wind, sang as delightfully as a lark in springtime.


Range: Alaska to Guatemala; nonmigratory.

The dipper is found north to northern Alaska (Kobuk River Valley, tributaries of the upper Atlatna River, and Eagle); central Yukon (Forty-mile, Ogilvie Range, and the forks of the Macmillan River); northern British Columbia (Atlin and Fort Halkett); Alberta (Athabaska River, about 150 miles northwest of Stony Plain, and Edmonton). East to Alberta (Edmonton and Calgary); Montana (Glacier Park, Belt Mountains, and Bozeman); Wyoming (Wolf, Sundance, and Laramie Mountains); South Dakota (Black Hills); Colorado (Gold Hill, Golden, Manitou, and Wet Mountains); New Mexico (Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Taos, and Ruidoso); Chihuahua (Cerro Prieto); alpine region of Veracruz (Jalapa and Rio Blanco); Puebla (Mount Popocatepetl); Oaxaca (Oaxaca); and Guatemala (San Mateo, Los Arcos, and Tecpam). South to Guatemala (Tontonicoparn and Tecpam). West to Guatemala (Teepam and Barrillas); Oaxaca (Oaxaca); Mexico (Temascaltepec); Chihuahua (Pinos Altos, Chuhuichupa, and Pacheco); Arizona (Huachuca Mountains, Santa Catalina Mountains, Salt River Wildlife Refuge, Oak Creek, and Grand Canyon); the Coast Range in California (San Diego County, Carpenteria, San Francisco Bay region, and Hoops Valley, Humboldt County); Oregon (Trail and Tillamook Bay); Washington (Vancouver, Olympic Mountains, and Bellingham); British Columbia (Vancouver Island and Graham Island, Queen Charlotte Islands); and Alaska (Sitka, Kodiak Island, Unalaska Island, Nunivak Island, and Kobuk River).

The range as outlined applies to the entire species, which has been divided into three subspecies or geographic races. The typical race, the Mexican dipper (C. m. mexicanus), occurs from the Huachuca Mountains in Arizona to southern Mexico; the dipper (C. m. unicolor) is found in Alaska, Canada, and the United States; the third race is found in Guatemala.

Casual records: An individual was watched closely in May 1891, on the White River, Sioux County, Nebr.; and a specimen was collected June 2, 1903, at Wauneta, Chase County, Nebr.

Egg dates: Alberta: 8 records, April 14 to June 28.

California: 30 records, March 23 to June 26; 16 records, April 18 to May 20, indicating the height of the season.

Colorado: 20 records, April 4 to June 10; 10 records, May 9 to May 31.

Oregon: 6 records, April 18 to June 7.



Discovery in the Field Museum in Chicago by Emmet R. Blake (1942) of a specimen of this type race of the species, collected by George F. Breninger in the Huachuca Mountains, Ariz., on May 28, 1903, entitles this form to a place on our list. Until recently our North American form, C. m. unicolor, was supposed to extend its range in the mountains of California, Arizona, and New Mexico approximately to the Mexican border. Evidently these, and other extreme southern mountain ranges, have also attracted several other Mexican forms, as they lie close to the border and have formed a natural pathway into the United States.

The Mexican dipper is darker than our more northern bird; its head and neck are deep sepia brown, whereas in our northern bird the head and neck are more grayish brown, and the whole plumage is paler.


About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.

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