Environmental Literature and Nature Writing
John Muir's Favorite Bird
A small gray blur zips across the water just upstream. Trying to cross the snowmelt of Illiouette Creek, I almost lose my balance when the gray blur distracts me. It lights on a moss covered rock, bobs up and down a few times, and disappears beneath the ice-cold waves.
John Muir called the gray blur a water ouzel, and observed the little birds year round in Yosemite. In The Mountains of California, he writes, "Among all the countless waterfalls I have met in the course of ten year's exploration in the Sierra, whether among icy peaks, or warm foothills...not one was found without its Ouzel...He is the mountain streams' own darling, the humming-bird of blooming waters, loving rocky ripple-slopes and sheets of foam as a bee loves flowers, as a lark loves sunshine and meadows."
Now known as the American Dipper (Cinclus mexicanus), this sooty gray bird lives along mountain streams throughout the West. They are common in the Cascade Range and the Sierra Nevada, and live along clear, clean, fast-moving streams and rivers with rocky shores and bottoms. The Dipper's tail points upward like a wren's. Their song is also wren-like; a crisp chatter, with many variations. Their short, direct flight, just above the surface of the water makes them easy to spot.
Dippers seem unaffected by cold temperatures, and they thrive on stormy weather and icy, turbulent water. Muir noted that the Dipper's song grew more varied and frequent as the weather got worse. The Dipper is well adapted for moving in cold, fast water. With oversized legs and feet, it searches for insects by walking upstream along rocky stream bottoms. The bird has a much larger oil gland than other birds, and as it preens its dense plums, it waterproofs them. Specialized flaps over its nostrils, and a nictating membrane protect its eyes. The Dipper's wings are short and pointed, and the bird can be seen using its wings as flippers and its tail as a rudder as it "flys" beneath the waves. The little bird dives under the waves after aquatic insects such as mosquito and caddisfly larvae, snails, and small fish. Dippers prefer fast water, but when the flow decreases in the late summer, they will dive along the bottoms of calmer waters and nearby ponds. They can swim across the surface, but without webbed feet, they are slower than ducks.
Dippers breed from March to August, mostly from May to July. Their nests are domes built of grass, moss, and leaves, usually placed close to the water in rock crevices, under bridges, in stream banks, stumps, or logs, even behind waterfalls. They lay three to six eggs and may raise two broods each year.
The Dipper holds a special place in Yosemite National Park, and is a common sight along the banks of the Merced River and the numerous streams that flow into it. The bird also holds special status as John Muir's favorite. He observed them regularly, and noted that "...the most wonderful singer of all the birds is the water-ouzel that dives into foaming rapids and feeds at the bottom, holding on in a wonderful way, living a charmed life."
The American Dipper enchanted John Muir when he first visited Yosemite in 1869. On and off for fifty years, Muir explored every part of Yosemite, making observations and contributing scientific knowledge about the park's geology and biology. Muir helped to found the Sierra Club in 1884, and served as its first president. He became one of our country's most influential conservationists, and helped to persuade Congress to include Yosemite in the National Parks system. Muir could always depend on Dippers to sing even when the sparrows and other birds were shaking the snow off their feathers and huddling for warmth. "Among all the mountain birds, none has cheered me so much in my lonely wanderings,-none so unfailingly."
The American Dipper reminds me of what Yosemite meant to John Muir. The cheerful little bird is, like Muir, strong and independent, with a good sense of humor. Other birders also remember Muir's love for dippers, and nearly all of the bird books on my shelf generously quote him. "Bird and stream are inseparable, songful and wild, gentle and strong, the bird ever in danger in the midst of the stream's mad whirlpools, yet seemingly immortal. And so I might go on, writing words, words, words; but to what purpose? Go see him and love him, and through him as though a window look into nature's warm heart."
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