Doesn’t the name of this bird sound like America claimed ownership of a constellation and renamed it after themselves? I’m guessing it would be the Big Dipper, because I doubt America would settle for ownership of the mere Little Dipper. Still, this animal isn’t a group of stars, it’s a cute little birdie.

American dippers are found in the US, but also in Canada and Mexico and Central America. They reside in the western part of the continent, and are usually found in mountains. They are fiercely attached to water, and particularly fond of swift, cold and rocky streams. They will sometimes migrate to lower elevations in winter, when their water source freezes.

A young American dipper. Image by GregTheBusker, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

These birds are fairly moderate in size, reaching around 17 cm in length and weights of 46 g. They have grey bodies and brown heads, which are fringed with white during the winter. American dippers have long legs, which help them forage in streams.

The diet of American dippers consists of things you can find in mountain streams, such as small crayfish, insect larvae, tadpoles and small fish. American dippers have a few handy adaptations that allow them to hunt while diving or walking along the bottom of their streams. They possess an extra eyelid that lets them see underwater, and special scales around their nostrils that keep them closed while the beak is submerged. American dippers also produce much more oil than normal birds, to help waterproof their feathers and reduce heat loss while foraging.

An American dipper standing on a rock in a stream, a very typical pose. They bob up and down while foraging, which is how they get their common name. Image by David A Mitchell from Calgary, Canada, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A male dipper woos a female by standing in front of her, wings spread and head stretched upwards. He then walks back and forth in front of the female, singing. If he does it well, the female will join in, and the two finish the song facing one another, their breasts touching.

Nests are built near water, on rocky ledges or river banks. Females lay 2-4 eggs, which will hatch in less than three weeks. Both parents help feed and take care of the young, until they are around a month old. At that time the chicks fledge and go out into the big wide world on their own.

Currently American dippers are listed as a species of least concern, which is great news. It is, however, affected by water pollution, and will disappear from polluted areas. Because of this, American dippers are used as an indicator species for water quality, so these birds are not only really neat, they are useful too!

Cover image by David A Mitchell from Calgary, Canada, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons, cropped to fit