As you scan the woods adjacent to your lawn, you notice what appears to be a piece of bark moving up a tree trunk. It slowly spirals upward, pausing periodically, until it suddenly flies to the base of another tree and begins the process anew. Congratulations and grab the binoculars, you have found North America’s only “treecreeper,” a Brown Creeper!
This species is distributed widely across the North American continent and is fairly common in its preferred habitat. Because it is so small, so well camouflaged, and has inconspicuous, thin, and high-pitched vocalizations, backyard birdwatchers are often surprised at their first sighting. These beautiful works of nature spend much of their time seeking bark-dwelling insects in the furrows of tree bark, probing with their slender, decurved bills.
What are your chances of finding a Brown Creeper in your yard? Habitat is everything. Forests that contain large diameter, mature trees are their preferred haunts. Add to the mix loose-barked tree species such as shagbark hickory, or other species whose bark is loosening due to age or decay and you are in Creeper Heaven. In fact, nests are typically found wedged between a tree’s stem and a loose piece of bark. Brown Creepers are built for these environs. Stiff tail feathers, short legs, curved toes, claws, and bills mean the woodpeckers have nothing on this little denizen of the forest.
So you are near the right habitat. What are your chances of having a Brown Creeper visit a feeder? During the active insect season, there is little possibility of this occurring. However, Brown Creepers are year-round residents except in high elevations (where they move to lower altitudes) and in the northernmost portion of their range. In the fall and winter an insect and larvae diet is supplemented with small amounts of native tree and grass seeds. At this time creepers sometimes join mixed-species foraging flocks that can include chickadees, nuthatches, and titmice. They will sometimes visit feeders for suet, sunflowers, and nutmeats in the company of these other birds. Some backyard birders have had luck smearing suet or a peanut butter/corn meal mixture directly on the bark of trees for the Creepers.
Watch for a tiny brown-backed sprite with dull white streaks on the head, back, and wings. The underparts are white shading to tan as you scan from throat to tail. The curved bill and long tail will be obvious. Males and females look similar. The song, though softly sung, is beautiful to hear.
Given its dependency on mature and over-mature forestland for food and home, the Brown Creeper’s continued viability is directly related to our working to preserve its habitat. Keep a watchful eye out for America’s native treecreeper and you may entertain a fascinating bird at your backyard feeding station!
Hejl, S. J., K. R. Newlon, M. E. Mcfadzen, J. S. Young and C. K. Ghalambor. 2002. Brown Creeper (Certhia americana), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology