Winter Songs

Winter Songs: American Dipper Courtesy US FWS Dave Menke, Photographer
American Dipper
Courtesy US FWS
Dave Menke, Photographer
Most of our songbirds have taken their songs and headed south. Even robins and meadowlarks have ceased their lovely melodies that carried well into the fall months. But there are a few noteworthy choristers that have remained- Townsend solitaires and N. American dippers. Not only do they sing beautifully (anthropocizing here) but they vocalize for different reasons than most. The breeding/nesting season has long since passed, which is the primary reason birds sing- attracting a mate and defending their breeding territory from other males.

So one might ask why sing? Both of the species mentioned are defending their feeding, not breeding territory. Townsends switch from insects to berries during the winter months, including juniper berries (actually cones) which they have a special penchant for. I’ve witnessed many instances of them doing battle while defending their tree from intruders. They often perch on the highest branch daring others of their kind to pick a berry. Females defend as well.

In my cozy little canyon they begin migrating down from their high mountain nesting territory in October filled with song, which is supposedly different from that used during courtship. Townsends keep good company as members of the thrush family which include bluebirds, robins, and various other thrush species- all known for their enchanting refrains. A flock of thrushes is known as a hermitage, interesting considering there is one named hermit thrush, quite common in our mountains.

Winter songs: American Robin Turdus migratorius Courtesy US FWS Dr. Thomas G. Barnes, Photographer
American Robin
Turdus migratorius
Courtesy US FWS
Dr. Thomas G. Barnes, Photographer
Robins, also berry eaters, are welcome guests, and often share the same tree with the solitaires. Considerably larger than their cousins, they feed unmolested.

The dipper sings its river song as it flits along streams. The varied notes are complicated and loud, possibly to compete with the rushing waters where it resides, including water falls. They will lay claim to a stretch of stream and like the solitaire, daring another of its kind to trespass. I’ve witnessed this amazing songster singing full tilt during white-out blizzards, challenging the storms intensity with its brazen refrains. “The dippers song is strong and sweet, made up of a great variety of trills and flute-like passages, delivered with great spirit and brilliance.”

I’ve not attempted to measure the length of its feeding domain, but assume it varies depending on food abundance. This little “penguin of the Rockies” as I call it, will dive underwater using its wings to stroke along the stream bottom while capturing its prey, which may include small fish. Constant preening with oil from near the base of its tail keeps it dry, and high density feathers provide excellent insulation. The cold waters must bring relief from comparatively frigid winter air.

I once observed a most unusual mating behavior when a pair of lovers suddenly spiraled up well over a hundred vertical feet from the stream, where they are otherwise tethered. Is this usual during courtship? I’ve only seen in on one occasion. Nature is full of mysteries and shock factor. Never say never! The Audubon Climate/bird reports Solitaires lose 92% of their summer range and an 88% loss for dippers by 2080, and their songs as well. This means more miles on my bike and less in my car.

This is Jack Greene- most fortunate to be part of this Wild Utah!


Images: American Dipper, Courtesy US FWS, Dave Menke, Photographer
Images: American Robin, Courtesy US FWS, Dr. Thomas G. Barnes, Photographer
Audio: Contains Audio Courtesy and Copyright
Text:     Jack Greene

Sources & Additional Reading:

Bengston, Anna, Robins in Winter, Wild About Utah, March 13, 2014,

Cane, James, Winter Song Birds, Wild About Utah, Feb 3, 2009,

Porter, Diane, Learning Bird Songs in Winter, 2009,