A Diving Songbird?
By Zoey Greenberg
Broadcast 5.4 & 5.7.2022
One fateful afternoon at the bottom of a canyon, as I sat nursing a torn meniscus and a bad attitude, a plump gray bird puttered past me and alighted on a stone several feet away. Its body pumped up and down with vigor, as if it were throwing its own creekside dance party, or telling me to cheer up. I watched, amused, wondering at the species. Before I could note distinguishing features, the bird disappeared. I scanned the rocks, confused. After several long moments the bird erupted out of the water, landing on its stone while droplets rolled off its tightly woven feathers, a look of nonchalance twinkling in its chocolate-brown eye. I blinked. A diving songbird? I thought I knew water birds: ducks, ospreys, bald eagles, kingfishers. But here was a robin-sized bird using river stones as diving boards, doing who knows what in currents too strong for me to cross. I was humbled. I pulled my chin up, saluted my new friend, and took a step towards camp, grinning into my day.
The bird is the American Dipper, and since that day in the canyon I’ve come to think of them as creek mermaids, with their teasing ways and aquatic secrets. The American Dipper is named for its characteristic bobbing behavior. It is one of five species belonging to the family Cinclidae, which is Greek meaning, roughly, a small “tail-wagging bird that resides near water.” They are the only dipper species in North America, and can be found in rapidly flowing waterways along the western half of the continent, from Mexico to Alaska.
Dippers consume aquatic invertebrates, small fish, fish eggs, and the occasional flying insect. They alternate between four types of feeding “plunges,” descriptively named the dive-plunge, wade-plunge, swim-plunge, and fly-plunge. Once, I watched an adult chase a small fish underwater and emerge victorious, the wriggling victim held tightly in the bird’s tweezer-like bill. After swallowing, it alighted on a stone in the middle of a riffle. It stood there, with feathers fluffed and a distant look in its eye, still as the moon.
Dippers are nonmigratory, however, they will move up and down in altitude to find open water during the winter. During the breeding season, males and females work together to construct nests on ledges, banks, under bridges, or behind curtains of waterfall. One summer, I found a nest. It was tucked beneath a rock ledge directly above the splash zone of a raging creek. From the opposite bank, I first saw a mound of substrate with pink trash in it. However, as I lowered my cheek to the ground for a better view, two gaping mouths popped out and began calling for food. The chicks, which I had taken for candy wrappers, were rambunctious bundles of well-camouflaged fierceness. I spent that whole summer returning to watch the adults deliver countless macroinvertebrates to satiate their demanding young. Twenty-five days after hatching, they fledged.
Dippers are bioindicators, meaning their presence serves as a marker for the health of a waterway. They depend upon pollution-intolerant prey, such as caddisfly larvae, and are therefore unlikely to live near polluted sites. Here in Montana, we take pride in the health of our beautiful streams, creeks, and rivers, such as Missoula’s Rattlesnake Creek, where I often see dippers in their evening feeding frenzies. These waterways provide needed habitat for many beloved species including, it turns out, the only diving songbirds on the continent. A gem of a bird, whose mermaid ways and chocolate eyes continue to humble me, and keep me searching for life around each creek bend. A bird quick as water, yet still as the moon.
Every week since 1991, Field Notes has inquired about Montana’s natural history. Field Notes are written by naturalists, students, and listeners about the puzzle-tree bark, eagle talons, woolly aphids, and giant puffballs of Western, Central and Southwestern Montana and aired weekly on Montana Public Radio.
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