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The Brown Creeper

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An uncommonly unusual common bird

My sister and her husband heat their home with firewood and subsequently have an area behind their home with covered firewood in various stages of being processed.  There are rounds to be chopped, chopped pieces to be stacked, and nice long cords of wood ready for the winter.  A couple Sundays ago an unusual bird hanging out in the wood pile drew everyone’s attention.  There it was, an oddly formed little brown bird making spirals around a “tower” of stacked rounds, again and again. What was it doing? Even more, what was it? 

This strange little bird was the Brown Creeper—a common bird in our area, but one with many distinctive features. Its name describes it very well: it is brown and it creeps around trees from a vertical position, sort of like a mini-woodpecker. And like a woodpecker, it can lean back on its stiff tail feathers, which serve as a prop to help the bird maintain its tree-hugging ability. 

The Brown Creeper is the only representative of its family in the New World. It is common across North America, but requires fairly mature forests for it to be successful. Therefore you will probably not see it in your backyard unless you have some big conifers towering over your property.  

One of its interesting traits is its feeding strategy.  This is fun to watch if you happen to chance upon a creeper or two.  A bird will fly from tree trunk to tree trunk, starting high in one tree and flying low to another.  It then spirals around the tree as it works its way up the trunk, stopping periodically to sit in place and inspect the nooks and crannies of the bark for its prey: spiders, insects, and their eggs. It can be quite thorough and sometimes the bird’s actions seem frenzied—thus the display of strange feeding activity on those stacked firewood rounds. It must have found a trove of bugs because this bird kept going around and around. I got dizzy just watching it!

The Brown Creeper is a wee little thing, four to five inches long. It is brown, but not uniformly. Instead, the coloration and patterns of its feathers are cryptic, providing a camouflage that mimics the tree bark upon which it earns its living.  The bird’s underside is white, from throat to belly, but you probably won’t see this. There are sometimes also white lines on the spread wings that sometimes appear to be chevrons when the bird is flitting or flying about. These can be distinctive. 

If you are able to “capture” a bird in your binoculars, you’ll note the long thin beak that is curved slightly downward. The bird uses this specialized beak to probe under the scales of bark in search of its meals. When winter comes and the insect pickings become slim, it will suffer through a vegetarian diet of seeds and whatnot; and it might even visit your suet feeder. It is one of the many little birds that remain over the winter. In fact, during the cold months you might even see it flocking with other species. Safety in numbers, I suppose.  

The Brown Creeper builds its nest under sections of bark that protrude out from the main trunk. The nests are small and might be difficult to spot. While the female builds the nest, the male protects their territory from intruders. Both parents participate in feeding the chicks.

Next time you are out in the woods and you spot a teeny “woodpecker” hopping up a tree side, remember that it is actually this little fellow. If you spook it, the bird will often freeze in place, using its camouflage to hide out in the open. Be patient. The creeper will move again and continue its spiral climb upward. Around and around it goes, how much high no one knows. Then off it flies to a neighboring tree and begins the cycle anew.  Happy birding!

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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

Tagged as:

woodpecker, A Bird in Hand, brown creeper

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