Passerine is the largest order of birds. This order includes over half of all living birds and consists chiefly of songbirds of perching habits.
The other half of the world’s birds are made up of waterfowl, water-dependent birds such as grebes, loons, and seabirds, game birds, shorebirds, waders, birds of prey, owls, hummingbirds, and woodpeckers.
The National Geographic Field Guide to Birds of North America nicely divides birds into these two groups (non-passerines and passerines) on the inside cover flaps. The front inside cover shows examples and page numbers of the 44 families of non-perching birds and the back cover illustrates the 40 families of perching birds.
There are two local passerine species that don’t behave like typical passerines. A typical passerine has the ability to perch and feeds on the ground for seeds and insects or gleans insects off of leaves on decidious trees or eats seeds from cones, and flowers. Most if not all have distinctive songs, thus the term songbirds and passerine are often used interchangably.
These two species are the Northern Shrike and the American Dipper. Northern Shrikes are like miniture raptors. They winter in the Upper Clark Fork Valley and breed in the northern parts of Canada. Their bill is hooked for tearng flesh. They perch on high lookouts and swoop down on small rodents and birds. Once they kill their prey they often impale them on thorns or barbed wire. Research indicates this behavior may be to mark territories, attract mates, or tenderize the flesh before consumption. This behavior has given them the nickname “butcher bird.” They are clearly not a typical passerine.
The other non-typical species is the American Dipper. This species clearly looks like a perching bird except for their habitat of being totally dependent on fast-running, clear streams for food.
Adults are sooty gray, with a dark bill and short tail and wings. Their overall appearance is rather plump. Their exclusive food is aquatic larval insects from clear, cold water streams. Food consists of caddisflies, stoneflies, and other freshwater larval insects.
If you get the opportunity to watch this facinating species, you will notice they bob up and down a lot. They also blink a tranluscent eyelid. The bobbing is thought to give the bird the ability to see into the water, avoiding the reflections on the surface. The translucent eye lid is closed when they summerge themselves under water allowing them to continue to see.
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The two pictures with this article show an adult looking into the water and plunging its head underwater to obtain a morsel. They also totally submerge for several seconds while feeding, emerging a few feet from where they plunged in.
They often feed from a rock in mid-stream, Here they bob, looking intensly into the water, then diving in or thrusting their head in to obtain a stonefly or other morsel, then popping back up on the rock.
When they re-appear they are totally dry because of the oil in their feathers.
Dippers are very site specific and can spend their entire lives in one stream, as they rarely fly over land. In the winter as higher reaches of a stream freeze over, they simply “migrate” down stream to open water, and then ascend upstream in spring. Some individuals will spend their entire lives in less than a mile of stream length.
They often nest under bridges where available or beneath overhanging stream banks.
I have seen them in most suitable habitat streams in the Upper Clark Fork Basin. One of the more reliable places to find them locally is Warm Springs Creek as it flows through Wahsoe Park in Anaconda. It took me three tries in 2018 to find them, but when I did there were two of them feeding together. I most often find them close to the bridge on the west end of the park.
If you go to find them walk the trail from the bridge downstream. Typically, you will find them within the first hundred yards.
Good birding in 2018.