Bird of the Year 2017: White-throated Dipper

Wasseramsel                                  Cinclus  cinclus

White-throated Dipper © Werner Scheuber

[Personal translation from the BirdLife Switzerland Press Release (in German) on 24 Jan 2017.]

The White-throated Dipper was voted as Bird of the Year 2017 by BirdLife Switzerland. It is the only songbird that can swim and dive and is not afraid to fly through the middle of a waterfall. Their habitat is fast flowing, unaltered streams and rivers with some slower flowing sections. This makes it the perfect ambassador for the current BirdLife Switzerland campaign “Biodiversity in Residential Areas“, which focuses on water this year.

Splash! The little brown bird with a white bib that was just standing on a stone in the middle of the river has now plunged into the water in a split second and disappeared. The observer involuntarily asks what the bird is doing under water, and when and where it will reappear. One thing, however, is clear: it must be the White-throated Dipper, the only songbird that likes to dive. BirdLife Switzerland has selected this fascinating bird as “Bird of the Year 2017”.

An Amphibious Life

A single dive by a dipper may last up to 15 seconds. Then they take a short breath and quickly dive again. This approximately 18 cm long bird is perfectly adapted to living in flowing rivers. Their food consists mainly of aquatic insect larvae such as those of caddisflies and stoneflies. Their plumage consists of a lot of fur-like downy feathers and is waterproof. In order to make its feathers waterproof, they regularly stroke their feathers with oil from the preening (uropygial) gland. This gland is located at the base of the tail, and is much larger in dippers than in other songbirds.

While diving, dippers close their nose and ears with a protective skin. Their eyes are designed so that they can see clearly both above and below water. Strong legs and claws enable the species to stand even in strong currents. They do not have webbing between the toes, but rather swim using their legs and wings for propulsion. In order to be able to dive better, dippers have less air in their bones than other songbirds [thus making them heavier].

Near-natural Waters and Low-disturbance Breeding Areas

The “Bird of the Year 2017” occurs [in Switzerland] on fast-flowing streams and rivers from the midlands up to 2500 m in the Alps. The rivers should be natural and unspoiled, and the water clean and rich in oxygen, thus providing sufficient populations of aquatic invertebrates as food for dippers. Only in winter when streams and rivers are frozen do they stray to lake shores.

This small bird is not very shy and tolerates people nearby. Nevertheless, quiet sections without too many disturbances are important, especially around nesting areas. You can already hear dippers singing at this time of year. During their courtship dance, both partners sing loudly. They build a dome-shaped nest made of moss and located in wall recesses, under bridges, or behind waterfalls. Females lay 5 to 6 white eggs as early as the beginning of March. The chicks hatch 16 days later and are fed for another 24 days in the nest. After leaving the nest, the fledglings are taken care of by the parents for another two weeks, after which they start looking for their own territory.


White-throated Dipper Habitat © BirdLife Switzerland

Ambassador for Calm Waters in Residential Areas

BirdLife Switzerland voted for the White-throated Dipper as “Bird of the Year 2017” because it is a perfect ambassador for natural water bodies in residential areas.

Dippers can be encouraged with, for example, nesting boxes under bridges [see links below], but also by restoring sections of waterways so that they and other animals have natural, disturbance-free areas available. For Christa Glauser, Deputy Managing Director of BirdLife Switzerland, it is clear: “It is definitely possible to plan streams and rivers in residential areas to meet the needs of both humans and nature.” It is important to actively plan in a way that meets the needs of nature, and thus the “Bird of the Year 2017”, while also providing places for recreation.

Additional Information

The BirdLife Switzerland website has links to numerous photos, posters, presentations, and videos in German, French, and Italian.

A Google image search for ‘dipper nest’ showed a number of different artificial nest box designs used by dippers, from plastic tubing to recycled car seats.

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