American Dipper like a bird, and a fish
Of all of our local bird species, the American Dipper (Cinclus mexicanus) is the oddest in my mind. This small songbird doesn’t have bold, unusual plumage or a boisterous, strange song. The drab, low-profile Dipper is remarkable because it is a bird that thinks it is a trout.
The American Dipper was formerly known as the “water ouzel.” Like many birds, the Dipper eats insects, but it specializes in aquatic insects — that are still underwater. Mayfly, midge and dragonfly larvae, worms, or even the occasional small fish are the Dipper’s preferred fare. Any fly fisherman will recognize that menu. Those are some of trout’s favorite foods as well.
Other birds also feed on aquatic insects — sandpipers, for instance. But while sandpipers have long delicate bills that they stick into the water to pluck up tasty morsels, Dippers just dive right in. An American Dipper can submerge itself and swim around for up to 30 seconds, moving small stones in search of its prey. Pretty impressive for a small songbird.
Unlike other birds that dive and swim, like ducks, the Dipper doesn’t have webbed feet. It looks like a smaller, all gray version of a Robin. The Dipper is less than eight inches from tip of beak to tip of tail. And though they look plump, they weigh at most two and a half ounces — about the same as a tennis ball. Dippers do not look like a bird that you would expect to plunge into a mountain stream and go for a swim.
Despite their terrestrial appearance, American Dippers do have adaptations for diving. Their short, rounded wings are used like flippers when swimming and their thick downy plumage has wetsuit-like warmth. Dippers waterproof their outer feathers by preening them with oil secreted from their extra large preen gland.
Even the Dipper’s blood is adapted for diving. Like whales and other diving animals, Dippers have a special version of hemoglobin, the molecule that holds oxygen, in their blood. This special hemoglobin can hold more oxygen than non-diving animals’ hemoglobin, allowing the Dipper to hold its breath longer.
This ability to hold onto extra oxygen may also help the Dipper deal with life at high altitudes. Just like many trout, the little bird’s preferred habitat is clear, rocky bottomed streams and rivers. In our area, that means it is usually found in the mountains.
Anyone who has ever dipped their toes in a mountain stream will know that the water is usually icy, even on a hot summer day. But that does not deter the Dipper. Nor do the little “trout-birds” head south for warmer waters when winter comes. As long as the water is not frozen over, American Dippers will swim and feed in it. If ice covers their favorite stream, they just head down mountain until they come to open water.
In our area, your best chance to spot an American Dipper is on the Grand Mesa. If you are a fisherman on the hunt for trout, finding a Dipper sharing your stretch of mountain stream is a sign you may have found a sweet spot. Presence of the odd gray birds is an indicator that the water quality is good and trout food is plentiful.
Even if you’re not a fisherman, spotting a Dipper is a sure sign you are enjoying a beautiful day in the mountains. Take a moment to watch the little “trout-birds” dip and dive in the clear cold water. American Dippers were one of John Muir’s favorite companions in the wilderness. In his 1875 book, The Mountains of California, Muir wrote about the Dipper: “He is the mountain stream’s own darling, the hummingbird of blooming waters, loving rocky ripple slopes and sheets of foam as a bee loves flowers… Among all the mountain birds, none has cheered me so much in my lonely wanderings, — none so unfailingly.”