The brown creeper is a hard bird to track down. As its name suggests, it is a brown bird that spends much of its time creeping, in this bird’s case along the brown bark of a big tree.
This makes the brown creeper inconspicuous, as the bird books often say, and both are hard to find and easily overlooked.
The plain truth is, you’re less likely to find a creeper than notice one.
Still, reports of creepers have been more frequent than usual this season, at least so it seems to me. I’ve heard several reports, including one from Leon Thoreson, who told me he’d seen two brown creepers at his place near Climax, Minn.
Two creepers at a time is even more rare. The bird books almost invariably say that creepers are “usually seen alone,” or words to that effect.
Creepers don’t call attention to themselves; their song is of low volume and high pitch, a tough combination, especially for aging human ears.
Any creeper sighting is likely to be memorable, partly because it usually involves a short flight to the base of a large tree. In this situation, a creeper is unmistakable; its wings show a pattern of white patches against a rich brown background.
No other creeper bird has that pattern, so the brown creeper in flight isn’t likely to be mistaken for a nuthatch or a woodpecker, even though their behaviors are somewhat similar.
Brown creepers differ in the details, however. They habitually fly to the base of a tree, then spiral up its trunk, stopping occasionally to extract food particles, mostly insects, from crevasses in the bark.
Here is a description of the behavior of a European tree creeper, so similar to the brown creeper that they were once considered a single species. “His head,” Edward Selous wrote in 1901, “which is the sentient handle to a very delicate instrument, is moved with such science, such dentistry that one feels and appreciates each turn of it.”
The bill is tiny and gently down-curved, making it a perfect tool for the creeper’s purpose.
Creepers, unlike woodpeckers, seldom hop, back down a tree or move laterally. Like nuthatches, they can hang upside down, but they rarely do. Rather, they proceed purposefully up and around the trunk of a good-sized tree. Their tails are deeply forked and act as a prop to steady the bird as it pauses to feed. Having finished the course, the creeper flies, or glides, to the base of another tree.
This sort of behavior limits their habitat; creepers are found among mature trees. That doesn’t confine them to forests, however, although mature forests must have been their natural range – before humans provided alternatives in parks, street plantings and shelterbelts. Brown creepers have been encountered in such places, including Grand Forks streets and rural farm yards.
Probably no bird is so secretive, or as inventive about nesting sites as the brown creeper. For decades, American ornithologists speculated about the species’ nesting habits without reaching any definitive agreement. More recently, nests have been discovered behind flaps of bark on mature or decaying trees.
This is a clever adaptation; the birds aren’t capable of excavating their own nesting holes, as woodpeckers are, and would be ill equipped to compete against other cavity nesters, including nuthatches and chickadees.
Creepers have developed a different approach.
This helped scientists realize that brown creepers are actually quite widespread in North America; nesting has been recorded in many of the Great Plains states, which were largely treeless until shelterbelts were planted.
Creepers are still regarded as migrants in our area, though nesting has been recorded in North Dakota. Most of my encounters with creepers have been in the fall, but this year’s reports suggest that they are also likely to be found in spring.While Grand Forks has been the “right place” the “right time” has probably passed for mid-spring migrants like brown creepers (though we shouldn’t rule out the possibility of breeding birds somewhere in our area at some time).
Migration is likely to enter a stage this week. Here’s an assessment from Dave Lambeth, the dean of local birders. “I think migration is definitely delayed.” Lambeth said, but southeast winds and warmer temperatures “will get birds moving.”
Lambeth wrote on the Grand Cities Bird Club members listserv, “This appears to be one of those years when birds will be close to ‘on time’ but their natural food sources are delayed.”
Harris sparrows have “started arriving,” he wrote, “and usually Baltimore orioles and rose-breasted grosbeaks are just a day or two later. It’s likely another week before ruby-throated hummingbirds arrive.”
So, it’s time to put out grape jelly, sliced oranges and grapes for the birds. Orioles and hummingbirds will come to them, and the fruit attracts insects that other birds will relish.