Photo by: Daniel Roberts

People visiting or residing along the Klamath River and its tributaries may notice a small, quick bird flitting across rivers and creeks in search of its next meal. The American dipper, or Cinclus mexicanus, is an aquatic songbird that nests on the crags and cliffs that overlook rivers. It ranges from Central America to Alaska where its small, round body and grey-brown coloration allow it to blend into the rocky terrain along rivers and creeks. Birdwatchers can identify dippers by their unique call and surprising fishing tactics.

The tiny dipper dives into rivers and streams to hunt! Their diets consist of insect larvae, small crayfish, and tadpoles. The dipper’s compact size and short wingspan (approximately 6 inches long with a 9-inch wingspan) allow them to plunge from perches along waterways directly into and out of the water with their prey. In addition to their compact size and maneuverability, the dipper has a transparent extra eyelid that allows them to see while “flying,” underwater!

Male and female dippers both dance and sing for potential mates. Once they’ve chosen their partners, dipper pairs build their dome shaped nests on cliffs, roots, or basically anywhere directly over a running body of water. Their nests are made mostly of moss and are held together with sticks and other bits of foliage. Once their 4-5 eggs are incubated for around two weeks, babies hatch and are almost immediately able to fly and swim. They spend a few weeks in and around the nest before heading out on their own.

Dipper habitats have been impacted and reduced with the rise of pollution and ecological disruption in the river systems they inhabit. Their populations serve as an indicator of healthy river ecologies: they require rapidly flowing, rocky streams with clear water to hunt in. Dipper habitat on the Klamath River has been negatively impacted by high water temperatures, vision-clouding algae, and subsequent fish kills. The Klamath Rivers flow is clogged by dams that make its water too murky and slow moving for dippers to fish in. The removal of dams on the Klamath River will dramatically improve conditions for dippers and other animals that live in and along its waters. Hopefully, visitors and residents alike will have more opportunities to see these fascinating birds after the Klamath River is undammed.