There is a little brown bird creeping around in the forest that you may never see. It is called a Brown Creeper. We have seen one in our yard three times in the last three weeks, but each time it was a delightful surprise. Our home records show that we have seen these little songbirds at different times of the year; mostly in April or January. It may be that we’ve been looking out the windows more or have been in the yard most often on those dates. The field guides say they are residents in this part of Minnesota in the summer months and just visitors in the winter, so I guess we have some dependable visitors.
When I say it is creeping around the forest, I don’t mean that it’s skulking among the snow banks or trails. It gets its name, because of the way it goes up a tree, hopping or creeping and bracing itself with its tail, until it reaches the height it desires. Then it turns and flies back down to the ground or to the base of another tree, where it resumes spiraling up the trunk.
The Brown Creeper measures between 5 and 5 ¾ inches in length, smaller than a sparrow, with a slim brown streaked body, a slender curved bill and a longish stiff tail. Its plumage is so perfectly matched to the bark of the coniferous trees it prefers, that if a predator (hawk or owl) should appear, the Creeper will land on a trunk, spread its wings, flatten itself and not move until the threat is gone.
Like a woodpecker, the Creeper has a backward facing, long and sharply curved talon on each foot that helps it maintain its position on the trunk. They can also go out onto the underside of branches, with their backs facing the ground in their pursuit of food. Unlike Woodpeckers, the Brown Creeper’s downward curved bill is used to probe (not pound) and pry its prey from beneath the layers of bark. This is why they are most often found on pines or other coniferous trees where the bark is loosely attached.
Their diet consists of a wide gamut of invertebrates (leaf beetles, weevils, aphids, scale insects, adult ants, months, caterpillars, cocoons of spiders and spiders themselves, to name a few), so bird seed will not attract them, but they will visit suet feeders on occasion.
The nest of the Brown Creeper is as interesting as the bird and probably equally hard to find. It is usually built behind or under loose strips or slabs of bark against the trunk of both dead and living trees. Fire scars on the trunks are sometimes used too. It can take up to one month to put together a nest (mainly by the female) with twigs, leaves and some bark shredding, and lined with more shredded bark, grasses and mosses. The nest has been described as having a hammock or half-moon shape with two ends going up into points.
It is likely that I have heard the Creeper’s call, but it is not one I can bring to mind, because it would be so infrequently heard and is described as a very soft, lisping, seeeee sound. Its spring time call is supposed to be more of a musical warble, but also very faint.
If you are new to birding, you will find it requires patience and luck to find this little forest dweller. But if you spend a lot of winter days looking out your windows, as I do, and have conifers nearby, chances are good, one of these days you’ll spot a little brown guy creeping around. A shy, hermit of a bird that makes our world just that much more fascinating.
By Kate Crowley