Insect-eating brown creepers join winter flocks

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By Sylvia Brockner

One of the most interesting winter birds found in our area is the little brown creeper. This delightful little bird is actually a permanent resident that lives in the area year-round.

While they are not abundant, they are regularly found in their preferred habitat above 7,000 feet to timberline. The brown creeper is a rather solitary bird during much of the year. During the nesting season, a pair tends to stay by themselves in their territory, keeping their nest well hidden and not associating much with other birds or man.

However, in winter, he seems to be quite different. He often joins a local group of winter birds and travels with them through the forest. Black-crowned chickadees, mountain chickadees, white-breasted and pygmy nuthatches, a downy a woodpecker, and dark-eyed juncos seem to form winter social flocks. There is perhaps some advantage in having more eyes searching for food, but often they just seem to be keeping each other company, braving winter together.

Most of these birds eat seed, and the flock comes to the feeder at least twice a day, as hungry visitors in the early morning to replace the energy they burned up during the night to keep warm and again late in the afternoon to be sure they have enough fat stored to see them though the coming night.

With them, there are often a few other birds. This morning when the “winter flock” appeared at the feeders in my yard, a red-shafted flicker and a brown creeper were with them.

The flicker was scooping up millet seed, which they do by turning their head sideways and dragging the side of their beak along the feeder, collecting a long narrow bill full of millet seed, a strange method of quickly getting a mouthful of the small seeds, which they appear to swallow whole. They do not seem to be able to shell the sunflower seed and ignore them, but they do survive the cold nights by scooping up white proso millet.

Most of the winter flock are seed eaters and come to the feeders for the oil-rich sunflower seed. The brown creeper, which comes with them, eats nothing but insects and therefore never comes to the feeder. He must have learned long ago that they have nothing for him, but he comes with the flock and flies directly to the biggest ponderosa pine, which is nearby. He lands at the base of the trunk near the ground. Then in typical creeper fashion, he spirals up the trunk looking for bark insects. When he reaches the top of the trunk, he may fly down to the base of the same tree and start another spiral up the same trunk or fly to the base of another nearby tree and spiral up it.

He is not a woodpecker but does have stiff, sharply pointed tail feathers that help keep him braced against the trunk and very long sharp claws on his feet to hold on to the bark. They never come down a trunk head first the way a nuthatch does. This spiraling up a tree is only done by creepers, and they can be identified by this action alone.

Brown creepers are basically a brown bird with a white eye line, and their brown back is shaded with darker brown and white, so they blend into the tree trunks. They also have a white belly, but it is so tightly pressed against the trunk that it can hardly be seen.

Once the pair bond is made, the creepers leave the winter flock and look for a proper nesting territory. This is usually in a shady grove of old trees, and the nest is placed between the trunk and a loose flap of bark. These nests are difficult to find because they are so well hidden.

I once saw a creeper’s nest in Allegheny State Park in New York state on the Pennsylvania border.

I believe I know where our resident creeper has nested but have not found the nest. The location is a thick growth of Douglas fir that looks like place where several cones fell at least 50 years ago, and many seeds germinated very close together in a damp oasis. They are now a dark shady clump of fairly good sized trees, and I have many times seen a creeper in that area. I just haven’t sat still to look for the nest.

There is no difference between male and female plumage in these little brown birds. Their mottled brown plumage, white breast, long, thin curved bill and long tail are diagnostic. Their high thin calls, much like a golden-crowned kinglet, and creeping habits are enough identification.

They can be seen all across North America from the mountains of Alaska and all the way south into Mexico. Their sharp eyes and curved beaks find many tree insects, and they are invaluable in keeping our forests healthy. They apparently don’t feel at home in small trees but prefer the large mature trees where their insect eating is even more important.