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  • American dippers are able to walk and “fly” underwater, but snag some prey items from the surface.

  • Nestlings are fed by both parents, and food items may be washed before being given to the young.

  • Fledglings continue to beg and be fed by a parent for another few weeks after leaving the nest.

  • Females choose the nest site, but the pair works together to gather material and build the nest.

  • American dippers’ nests typically have a low, waterside entrance and a softly lined inner cup.

  • American dippers have nasal flaps they can close when diving under water to search for food.

The American dipper -- clothed in modest grey, brown, and black plumage -- is nonetheless an impressive bird. It has the amazing ability to hunt and forage by walking and “flying” underwater in cold, clear, turbulent streams of its forested, mountainous habitat, like that of the Munk Wildlife Sanctuary, in the foothills of the Trinity Alps, in northern California. In fact, these birds are nearly inseparable from water. They prefer streams with boulders, waterfalls, cliffs, and ledges, which provide ideal sites for their nests. But American dippers can also be found foraging at sea level streams, and at the edges of stream-fed lakes or ponds. Their vast geographic range encompasses the mountains of western North America, from northern Alaska to southern California. They are also found in Mexico and southward to Panama. Their range in elevation is equally expansive, extending from sea level along California’s central and northern coast to 10,000 feet or more in the White Mountains.

Threats to their safety and wellbeing

Because of the American dipper’s vast range and large population, there is currently little concern about whether the species will continue to flourish. However, individuals and specific populations may suffer from the effects of deforestation, pollution from industry and agriculture, and impacts upon water quality, water level, and amount of prey available in streams. Their tendency to live at high elevations has led to a smaller than usual amount of information on population trends, which could lead to a delay in addressing current or future threats; however, as American dippers and salmon require similar habitat, efforts to protect habitat for salmon will also help American dippers.

How they spend their time

The roar of rushing water in the American dipper’s typical environment has led to the bird having loud calls and songs. Their characteristic bobbing—a behavior that researchers believe may serve as a form of visual communication in their noisy environment—is what earned it the “dipper” moniker. These birds are nearly always seen in and around streams, skimming prey from the water’s surface, diving into water, and walking along the bottom of a stream, pushing rocks out of the way to reveal prey beneath. Freshwater invertebrates, such as insects and insect larvae, make up most of their diet, but they also eat tiny fish, fish eggs, and small aquatic plants.

American dippers have an elaborate courtship that includes much strutting and singing. Once the male performs, if he is singing the right tune, so to speak, the female joins in strutting and singing, too. Their nests are large, mossy, and dome-shaped, with an inner cup of grass, leaves, and bark strips. Both parents work together to build the nest once the female has selected a nest site, which is typically near water, to help keep the moss alive. The male provides food for the female while she incubates their four or five eggs. When the young hatch, both parents care for the nestlings until they fledge, which usually takes about 25 days. Thereafter, the parents often split up the brood and continue feeding the fledglings separately for another 24 days, ensuring that the young are ready to succeed on their own.

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