Want Something to Brag About? Find a Shy, Solitary Brown Creeper
By Jennifer Dolese
Broadcast 11.30 & 12.3.2022
Now that the winter season is nearly upon us, many of you who maintain bird feeders might be enjoying the antics of such visitors as chickadees, nuthatches, and sparrows, those hearty songbirds who dare to stay and brave the cold weather instead of high-tailing it South. Another brave little songbird to stick around is the Brown Creeper, but don’t expect to see much of this bird at your suet station.
Brown creepers are shy and solitary birds. As a whole, they rarely catch on to the easy life of human-maintained food sources. Part of the reason is the creeper’s shyness around other, more aggressive birds. As soon as another bird careens into its space, the creeper will quickly leave the scene. Once a creeper discovers the tastiness of suet, however, it will become a loyal visitor. Yet a creeper won’t approach your feeder unless it’s unoccupied, and flies away when other birds come around.
Creepers don’t usually creep. They cling to the sides of trees by using their long, sharp, down-curved claws and hitch up the trunk like a woodpecker. Creepers are bark cleaners, probing the wood with their thin and curving bills. The bill (about the size of a fingernail clipping), is the perfect tool for probing the numerous cracks, fissures, checks, and rifts that characterize a tree’s coat.
A hungry creeper will methodically work its way from the base of a tree upward, poking and probing for bugs, beetles, spider eggs, and in winter, subadult insects and other invertebrates. After spiraling up one tree, the creeper will drop down to start at the base of the next. This bird has been described as dull and staid, leading a monotonous life of toil and without much personality but, on occasion, the creeper has been observed doing inside-out looping acrobatics after it has dropped headfirst like a stone from the top of a tree—a move not typical of avian fuddy-duddies.
Instead of heading for heavy cover like most songbirds when avoiding predators such as the sharp-shinned hawk, the brown creeper will fly to the nearest tree and flatten itself on the far side, clasping the bark with spread wings to become another brown and buff mottled bump of bark.
There is probably no other songbird so widely distributed as the brown creeper. It occurs across the United States and in all Canadian provinces. Yet because of its solitary lifestyle, the creeper isn’t often observed and identified. Keep your eye out for this small white-bellied, brown-backed bird in the hours when no one else is hustling in at your bird feeder. Or listen in the woods for its lyrical yet melancholy song which William Brewster described as “one of the sweetest that ever rises in the thickets of northern forests…its tone…exquisitely pure and tender…dying away in an indescribably plaintive cadence like the soft sigh of the wind among the pine boughs.”
Seeing and identifying this bird is worth bragging about. I should know. Much to my husband’s chagrin, I saw a brown creeper this summer when he wasn’t there. Now I’ve got one up on him.
Every week since 1991, Field Notes has inquired about Montana’s natural history. Field Notes are written by naturalists, students, and listeners about the puzzle-tree bark, eagle talons, woolly aphids, and giant puffballs of Western, Central and Southwestern Montana and aired weekly on Montana Public Radio.
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