For the Birds Radio Program: Brown Creeper

Original Air Date: Jan. 10, 1997

The Brown Creeper’s mantra: Speak softly and stick to a big stick. (4:22)

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On this year’s Christmas Bird Count my group found a Brown Creeper. Anytime we see a creeper it’s a treat, and in winter the pleasure is augmented by the scarcity of birds in generaI, but even when birds are abundant, my heart swells with delight to discover a creeper. This bird is designed to mimic the color and pattern of tree bark, so you wouldn’t think it’d be much to look at, but the delicate shadings of browns, white, and even chestnut in its plumage, along with its gentle ways and sibilant call notes, are uniquely soft and pleasing. I’ve held creepers in my hand and am ever struck by their eyes–dark and curious, looking into my own, more forward¬≠ facing than the eyes of most songbirds. A creeper uses binocular vision to search crevices of tree bark for tiny insects, which it pulls out with its thin, delicately curved beak. Each tail feather is stiff and spiny at the tip to survive abrasion against trees.

Most birds flit from subject to subject as easily as they flit from tree to tree. Chickadees snatch seeds, bugs and even bits of frozen carcasses here and there, and between meals they whistle, catch drops of water from melting icicles, take snow baths, chase off intruders, investigate people and animals–you never know what a chickadee will be up to next. But Brown Creepers have a singleness of purpose hard to match in the world of birds. They spend virtually every waking moment clinging to tree bark or flying to another tree to cling to its bark.

At nesting time, a pair of creepers wedges their baby cradle into a piece of loose bark. Nesting creepers require mature forests where they can find mosses and lichens and loose pieces of rotting bark. Their nests are so well camouflaged that I’ve only found one creeper nest in my life, in a big white pine at Hartwick Pines State Park in northern Michigan. The nest was conveniently at eye level so it was easy to see the incubating bird. A large piece of bark had become mostly separated from the tree, and the nest, made of lichens and mosses, was wedged into the crevice. The incubating bird remained in the nest the whole time a large group from the Michigan Audubon Society watched it, for many long minutes. It occasionally looked at us, but never seemed the least bit nervous about our presence, having absolute trust in its camouflage.

Brown Creepers move through forests in loose flocks, making soft lisping calls to one another, yet they never seem to see each other, so intent are they on spiraling up each tree, scrutinizing every crevice in the bark. From a distance they seem to creep along smoothly, but close up you can observe that they’re actually hitching up the tree. When a creeper reaches a certain unpredictable height, it suddenly takes off and flits to the bottom of another tree, only to spiral up anew. It moves steadily and surely, as if on a stroll rather than searching for food, but is somehow constantly eating. John James Audubon wrote, “shoot one of them when you please, you will find its stomach crammed with insects and larvae such as occur on the trees.” He noted that when food is scarce in a stand of trees, creepers simply fly to a better food source.

When creepers aren’t spiraling, they sometimes sit absolutely still on their vertical perch. Audubon wrote, “f have observed it, when satiated, remain still and silent as if asleep, and, as it were, glued to the bark, for nearly an hour at a time.” Whether creeping or immobile, these tiny, inoffensive forest elves live every moment of every day following the Creeper’s golden rule “Speak softly and stick to a big stick.”