American Dipper

Bird of the Month by Russ Chappell

If American Dippers are to be trusted — and hey, they’re really quite discerning — then Fain Park has a pond with quality water. They’re very selective and avoid even mildly polluted waters.

These casual, transient winter visitors normally prefer clear, fast-running streams, where they feed on aquatic insect larvae like caddis flies, mayflies, beetles, bugs and mosquitoes, as well as adult insects, worms, snails, fish roe and small fish. They are rarely seen on ponds or lakes.

Also known as the water ouzel, the American Dipper is stout and dusky grey with some brown on the head, bright white eyelids and a thick bill, 5.5-8” in length and weighing 1.5-2.4 ounces. It has a nictating membrane, like an extra eyelid, which helps it see underwater, as well as scales to block its nostrils when submerged.

Permanent residents in a territory ranging from Alaska to Panama, some dippers stay through the winter where streams remain unfrozen. Others relocate to lower elevations and southward for wintering.

To help them tolerate cold water they have a relatively low metabolic rate, extra oxygen-carrying capacity in their blood, thick feathers and generous quantities of secreted oil, which keeps them warm when feeding underwater. When they’re not foraging you can catch them bobbing up and down on a rock or the shore.

The dipper is North America’s only aquatic songbird, its loud song consisting of high whistles and trills, “peee peee pijur pijur.” Both genders sing year-round. They defend the territory along the streams they frequent, and while feeding underwater may fall prey to bull or Dolly Varden trout. Unlike most songbirds they go through total molts as ducks do, rendering them flightless by late summer.

They construct globe-shaped nests with side entrances, on ledges or banks near the water, behind waterfalls or under manmade structures. Normally the female incubates 2-4 white eggs, which hatch in 15-17 days. The young grow into fledglings 20-25 days later.

This unique bird may still be hanging out at Fain Park, and perhaps you can add it to your bird book!

The Prescott Audubon Society is an official chapter of the National Audubon Society. Check it out online at PrescottAudubon. Org.

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