Perched on a stone in mid-stream, the bobbing Dipper is perfectly at home in its aquatic environment. These fascinating birds are one of just five species in a specialised songbird family.
Close up portrait of a Dipper
White-throated dipper, European dipper
17cm to 20cm
25cm to 30cm
50g to 76g
The White-throated Dipper is a distinctive bird, easily identified by its appearance and habits.
Dippers are identified by their chocolate brown plumage and white chin, throat, and breast. Their short tail is often held up at a 45-degree angle to their back. These are stocky birds with large, well-developed legs and feet. Their eyes are brown, and they have straight black bills.
Dippers can also be identified by their characteristic habit of bobbing up and down when perched. The sexes appear similar, although females are generally smaller and have shorter wings.
Juvenile Dippers are paler above, appearing grey-brown. Their underparts are dirty grey, although still much lighter than their upperparts. Young birds also have pinkish-brown legs and feet.
Close up of a Dipper bird
Dippers are stout little birds, slightly smaller but more rotund than the Starling.
Dippers have a relatively short, compact build. Adults have a total body length of 17 to 20 centimetres.
Male Dippers weigh 60 to 76 grams. They are heavier than females on average, although there is some overlap. Females weigh 50 to 67 grams.
Adult Dippers have a wingspan of 25 - 30 centimetres.
Close up of a Dipper with freshly caught prey in its beak
Dippers call loudly to carry above the often noisy sound of the streams where they live.
The male Dipper produces a loud and variable wren-like song. Females also sing, although their song is more discordant. Both sexes also utter rattling and zitting calls, frequently heard as they fly past low to the water.
Simon Elliott, XC593120. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/593120.
Dippers hunt by walking underwater. A typical dive lasts just a few seconds, although they can stay under for half a minute in exceptional circumstances.
Dippers search for small aquatic insects and crustaceans on the riverbed. Their major prey items are caddisfly, dragonfly, mayfly, and stonefly nymphs, and they occasionally take small fish.
Their specialised diet prevents competition with other bird species in their preferred habitats and allows them to feed throughout the year, provided their stream does not freeze over.
Dipper chicks eat the same food as their parents. The young first leave the nest after about three weeks and are fed for another week or two before gaining independence.
Dippers mainly eat caddisfly, dragonfly, mayfly, and stonefly nymphs, and they occasionally take small fish
Dippers are well adapted for their underwater forays. They have nasal flaps that prevent water from entering their nostrils. They can enhance their vision underwater using focus muscles that change the curvature of the lens in their eyes. Their ability to store oxygen in their blood means they can stay underwater for up to 30 seconds.
Dippers have specific habitat requirements and a patchy distribution in the UK. Read this section to learn where to find these fascinating aquatic birds.
Dippers live along fast-flowing streams with rocky bottoms. They may visit lakes and even coastal areas if forced by freezing weather, but they are never found far from the water.
Dippers are most common in upland areas of Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Northern England, although they are also widespread in Wales and southwestern England. The species has a discontinuous range elsewhere in Mainland Europe and Central Asia.
Dippers live along streams, spending most of their time on stones and boulders in the riverbed. These unusual birds forage under the water by walking along the bottom. They typically occupy territories of about 0.4 to 2.5 kilometres.
Living in such a wet environment and dealing with strong currents requires some rather special adaptations. These birds can seal their nostrils to keep water out, and they preen regularly with an oily secretion to keep their feathers waterproof.
Dippers swim well and cling to the bottom with powerful claws, angling their body and wings to maintain a downward force.
You're best chance of spotting Dippers is along streams
There were an estimated 6900 pairs of Dippers in the UK in 2016. These birds occur in low numbers due to their territorial nature and specific habitat requirements. Unfortunately, the species has declined by over a third in the UK since the mid-1990s.
Dippers are most common along stony streams in upland areas. Look for them along clear, faster-flowing sections. Their territories may be over two kilometres long, but looking out for their droppings on exposed stones and boulders in the stream can confirm their presence.
Dippers are often seen perching on rocks and boulders mid-stream, bobbing in characteristically spasmodic fashion, then suddenly disappearing underwater. They will also swim on the surface of the river with their body low and wings open.
The dipper’s short, rounded wings give it a characteristic whirring sound during its flight, which is straight and fast. The main clue that a dipper is nearby is the tell-tale droppings it leaves on rocks in the river.
Front on view of a Dipper
Dippers have a typical lifespan of about three years, although the oldest recorded specimen was eight years and nine months old.
Dippers could be preyed upon by various carnivores in their natural habitat. Female Sparrowhawks and Goshawks could take adults, while eggs and nestlings are vulnerable to corvids like Carrion Crows and mammals like rats, mink, and otters.
Dippers are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981.
Dippers are not endangered. However, they have an amber conservation status in the United Kingdom due to a continued decline in breeding birds. The White-throated Dipper is listed as ‘Least Concern’ on the IUCN Red List.
Dippers are resident breeding birds in the United Kingdom. Pairs raise one or two broods each year, usually starting in early April.
Dippers nest along streams in crevices, rock walls, behind waterfalls, and beneath bridges. They use the same sites year after year, although they rarely reuse old nests. The Dipper's nest is a large dome of moss and other vegetation with a side entrance.
Dippers lay one or two clutches of four or five white eggs, each measuring approximately 26mm long and 19 millimetres wide.
Dippers are usually monogamous in the breeding season, although some males pair with more than one female.
Young White-throated Dipper chicks in the nest
Adult Dipper feeding a recently fledged juvenile
Dippers are unique and fascinating birds to observe, particularly as they forage for food.
Dippers are highly territorial and will not hesitate to fight with one another to defend their limited habitats. However, they are known to let their guard down on cold winter nights when several birds may roost together in sheltered places like bridges.
Dippers roost in or near their nest sites. These sites are important areas within their territory, and some have even been used continuously by different birds for over a century.
Dipper in flight
Dippers are not exactly built for long-distance travel, although harsh winters may necessitate local movements.
Dippers are non-migratory birds in the United Kingdom that can be seen all year. There are two resident sub-species, namely Cinclus cinclus hibernicus of Ireland and Western Scotland and C. c. gularis of England, Wales, and the rest of Scotland.
Occasionally, a third subspecies (C. c. cinclus) migrates to the east coast to escape the harsh winters of Northern Europe.
Dippers are native to the United Kingdom.
Close up of a Dipper perched on a branch
Dippers take their name for their constant habit of bobbing their bodies up and down while perched. We don’t know exactly why they perform this seemingly energy-wasting activity, although some suggest it may signal health and vitality to their predators and competitors.
Dippers are the United Kingdom’s only aquatic songbird. They belong to the order Passeriformes and the suborder Passeri, which includes the singing perching birds.
The Dipper is an aquatic songbird, one of just five species in the Cinclidae family.
Known collective nouns for a group of Dippers are as follows:
Brighten up your inbox with our exclusive newsletter, enjoyed by thousands of people from around the world.
© 2023 - Birdfact. All rights reserved. No part of this site may be reproduced without our written permission.