The American Dipper

This pudgy little bird may not look like anything special, but beneath its underwhelming exterior beats the heart of a champion.

The American Dipper: A Superhero Hiding in Plain Sight

By most estimations, the American Dipper is a drab little bird—gray, short-tailed, with a sparrow-sized body that’s described variously by bird books as “plump” or “chunky.” Its song isn’t much either, at least to my ear—a nice high whistling and trilling, true, but just okay for a songbird. Seeing the dipper out of its natural context, you’d be hard pressed to do much more than shrug.    

But that’s the thing—you rarely see a dipper out of context (context in this case being a silver-flecked, fast running creek somewhere west of the 100th meridian on the North American continent). And to see a dipper in its natural habitat is to see an animal transform, Clark Kent-like, from your mild-mannered, workaday little bird to a superbird supremely adapted to its surroundings and capable of serious feats of athleticism (chunkiness be damned).

You might assume that those feats are given away by the bird’s name, and indeed, the dipper does dip, popping down and up in the water in a movement that resembles old-timey calisthenics. What they’re actually doing is peering into the rushing creek, sometimes at the rate of once a second, to look for their prey—larval dragonflies, mayflies, mosquitoes, midges, fish eggs, worms, even small fish. They’re helped in this endeavor by several physical features: nictitating membranes that act as an extra eyelid and allow them to see underwater; scales that shut over their nostrils; an extra-high lung capacity; and a low metabolism that allows them to withstand the creek’s cold. You could say that they were built to dip, or, looking at it another way, that the creek they dip in is what created them. Either way, they perfectly fit their place.

But the dipper’s dipping is just a warm-up for the main act. Once it’s spotted its prey, the bird dives forcefully into the turbulent, branch-strewn waters, and then swims and walks on the creek floor, its wings still beating as if in flight and its chunky gray body suddenly appearing sleek and silver under the water. Some dives are longer while others are a series of rapid surface dives, and though I haven’t seen it, it’s said that dippers even sometimes dive from the air. If the dive succeeds, the dipper scrambles back to a rock or the shore with its dinner. If that dinner can be trusted not to run away—an egg, for instance—the bird might place it on a rock and dive in again.

Not unlike many alter-egoed superheroes, the dipper's life is by necessity a solitary one. The work of harvesting wild, running water is best done alone, so after the shared work of raising their young is done, dipper parents spend much time apart, each carving out its own linear territory on the creek. Visit a clear, relatively clean body of water out West and you might see a dipper hurtling up or down its section, wings flapping hard, barely a foot above the water’s surface. And if you’re lucky enough to witness the dipper transform into its dipping and diving self, then another transformation may occur as well. In my experience, the sight of Cinclus mexicanus in action tends to work a certain chemical magic on the brain of many Homo sapiens, beginning with a jolt of delighted awe at the moment when the dipper suddenly casts off its humdrum disguise to reveal itself as the miracle of adaptation that it is—no superpowers required.