Cinclus mexicanusAmerican dipper

Geographic Range

Cinclus mexicanus, the American Dipper, can be found in the mountains of western North America from lower California to northern Alaska. It is also found in Mexico south to Panama. The American Dipper never leaves the company of water. During winter, they sometimes become more common in the lower reaches of the streams on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada (California). In California, Dippers range in elevation from sea level along the central and northern coast, to over 9,000 feet in the central Sierra Nevada, and upwards to 10,000 feet in the White Mountains. Wanderers occasionally exceed 12,000 feet in the central Sierra Nevada. (Schoenherr 1995, Small 1994)


American Dippers prefer swift, clear, cold, permanent streams, especially those with large boulders, tumbling waterfalls, steep cliffs and ledges which can be used as sheltered nest sites. These sites are often located under the waterfalls. Man-made culverts, bridges, and small dams may also be utilized as nest sites. Where such streams flow into clear lakes and ponds, Dippers are often found foraging along the edges of the latter as well. Primary life zones for breeding are Canadian (and occasionally in the upper Sonoran), often extending upwards into the Hudsonian or even higher. The elevation range is from sea level along the central and northern coast, to over 9,000 feet in the central Sierra Nevada, and upwards to 10,000 feet in the White Mountains of California. Wanderers occasionally exceed 12,000 feet in the central Sierra Nevada of California.

(Small 1994)

Physical Description

Adult American Dippers grow to roughly 18 cm (7 in.) in length from beak to tail. In the spring, adults are slaty or deep neutral grey on their body, brown on their head and neck, and a darker gray to almost black on their wings and tail. The upper eyelids are touched with a narrow border of white feathers, and their bill is black. Their feet are yellow in color.

During the fall and winter, the colors of adults and immature males and females change. The feathers of underparts become margined with white, and they also have white edging on the wings. The bill turns to a light brown. Young American Dippers are a much lighter color on their stomach compared to the adults. The throat is nearly white, the wing feathers and occasionally tail feathers extensivily are white. Their bill is yellow.

This dipper has large oil glands to help waterproof feathers, and nasal flaps that allow it to close the nostrils under water (Welty 1982)

  • Average mass
    50.2 g
    1.77 oz


The mating ritual consists of the male stretching his neck upward, bill vertical, wings down, partially spread. The male then struts and sings before the female. If the song is right, the male and female will perform together ending the song with their breasts touching.

The American Dipper produces about four to five eggs that are 26 mm x 19 mm in size. The incubation period lasts about 16 days. After birth, the young dipper will remain about 24-25 days under the parents care.



The American Dipper feeds in and around streams. They often dive into the water, or walk along the bottom of the stream to catch their chosen food. The American Dipper can dive up to 20 feet under water.

The mating ritual of the American Dipper is listed in the previous section. Mating pairs often drive away other dippers that invade their territory (Bent 1948).

Some dippers have been noted to wash food prior to feeding it to their young (Thut 1970).

Communication and Perception

Food Habits

The American Dipper feeds on freshwater invertebrates, especially insect larvae, and very small fish. They have also been known to feed on small aquatic plants.

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive


Economic Importance for Humans: Negative


Conservation Status


Anthony Camoroda (author), Fresno City College, Shirley Porteous-Gafford (editor), Fresno City College.



living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map


living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

World Map


uses sound to communicate

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


having the capacity to move from one place to another.


This terrestrial biome includes summits of high mountains, either without vegetation or covered by low, tundra-like vegetation.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


uses touch to communicate


uses sight to communicate


Bent, A. 1948. Life Histories of North American Birds. New York, New York: Dover.

Dawson, W. 1923. The Birds of California. San Diego, California: South Moulton Company.

Ehrlich, P., D. Dobkin, D. Wheye. 1988. The Birder's Handbook. New York, New York: Simon & Schuster.

Morton, E. 1989. Lords of the Air. Washinghton D.C: Smithsonian Books.

Schoenherrr, A. 1992. A Natural History of California. Berkeley, California: University of California Press.

Skutch, A. 1979. Parent Birds and Their Young.. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Small, A. 1994. California Birds: Their Status and Distrubution. Vista, California: IBIS Publishing Company.

Thut, R. 1970. Feeding Habits of the dipper in Southwestern Washington. Condor, 72: 234-245.

Welty, J. 1982. The Life of Birds. Chicago: Saunders College Publishing.