American Dipper

small gray bird standing on rock, looking into river

NPS photo/Sierra Coon

Cinclus mexicanus

The American dipper's plain gray color may look dull, but its behavior is far from that—it is truly fascinating to watch. This bird, also known as the water ouzel, will spend its entire life foraging for food around and, surprisingly, under the water. Zion National Park's Virgin River and its tributaries are the home of this fantastic feathered creature. These swift-moving waterways are an ideal location to observe the amazing and unusual ability of this unique bird.

Zion's hardy, steel-colored ball of fluff will dip its head under the water to look for available food, hence the name "dipper." It will wade, swim, and even dive for insects. Using its wings to swim up to 20 feet (6 meters) underwater, it hunts for aquatic insects and their larvae that are nestled under rocks or wedged between pieces of gravel. Dippers are equipped with a second eyelid, or transparent "nictitating" membrane, allowing underwater visibility that aids in aquatic forays. The Virgin River's bounty provides a menu for this aquatic avian that includes stoneflies, mayflies, caddisflies and their larvae, as well as small fish and snails. Zion's riparian corridor provides a permanent home for the American dipper—a watchful eye may be fortunate to spot this special songbird in and around the Virgin River.
Excerpt from the poem: The Dipper, by former Zion Ranger Naturalist J. L. Crawford:

Cinclus mexicanus is its Latin name,
But dipper or water ouzel, he's just the same—
The same crazy creature who leaves no doubt
That he doesn't know whether he's a bird or a trout.

He likes to plunge into swift mountain streams,
The colder the better, or so it seems.
Then he flies through the water and walks on the bottom.
One would think he has gills, and maybe he's got 'em.

Should you go hiking and stop for a drink
From a clear mountain stream, just pause at the brink,
Sit down, look around, eat a snack, make a wish,
And you may see the bird that thinks he's a fish.

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Last updated: January 31, 2016

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Springdale, UT 84767


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