birdnote: the indefatigable brown creeper, a model citizen among birds

Brown creeper with insect, photo by Mike Hamilton‘ARE YOU SHOVELED OUT?’ It was Ellen Blackstone—my BirdNote.org friend. “Birds are happy that I’m packing feeders and keeping pools unfrozen,” I shot back. “And I got to say Happy New Year to my favorite sly and shy little friend, the brown creeper.”  To which she exclaimed, “Brown creeper!” and sent photos, plus a charming story of a woman who loved Certhia americana as much as I do. Here’s why: 

The brown creeper is about 5 inches long (much of it tail!), but weighs just 0.2 to 0.4 of an ounce, or 5 to 10 grams—though it never lets being petite get in the way of business. With a beautiful voice and the best camouflage ever, it’s what I’d call a do-er. The brown creeper starts at the base of old trees—preferably with loose or shaggy bark—heading upward in search of insects and spiders. Once it reaches the top, it flies to the base to start again.

Hazel Wolf, a Seattle-based longtime activist for social justice, admired that trait when she saw the bird in action on her first birding trip, at age 64. The creeper’s determination inspired her to take on advocacy projects in behalf of the environment from that day on, until her death.

“I saw it work its way up the trunk, moving quickly, always up, up, up—then fly back to the base…” Hazel said (the full story is in this early BirdNote public-radio segment). “I realized how hard he worked for a living, just like me.

“Yes! I’m a birdwatcher,” she’d say, “because there are some birds in Washington, DC, that need careful watching!”

(And there still are. Oops–sorry for editorializing!)

“Hazel had her foot in three centuries–born in 1898, died in 2000, just as she had hoped,” Ellen told me last week.  (Read Wolf’s “New York Times” obituary.) “She worked with labor, the tribes, whomever, for social and environmental justice, and started 21 of the 26 Audubon chapters in the state of Washington. Amazing woman.”

Amazing bird.

Brown creeper by Mike Hamiltonthe brown creeper

THOUGH THE BROWN CREEPER is resident throughout the United States, you won’t see it in places like my friend Ellen’s yard without large trees (the bigger the better). Outside my kitchen door, an ancient three-trunked Thuja with lots of peeling bark is made to order. You might think the brown creeper looks like a nuthatch, but typically nuthatches descend a trunk, while creepers ascend (on the best days, my big tree looks like a two-lane highway). Creepers normally make their nests in what is described as a hammock-like arrangement fashioned between tree trunk and a flap of bark. Though basically insectivorous (using their specialized, downcurved beak to explore the crevices in tree bark), they will visit suet or peanut butter feeders and eat some seed in winter. Cornell’s “All About Birds” brown creeper profile.

(Photos by Mike Hamilton, used with permission.)

how to get birdnote

FIND ANSWERS to other bird questions in the BirdNote show archives, or on their FieldNotes blog. All of my past interviews with BirdNote can be found at this link.

Meantime, listen to BirdNote’s latest podcast  by visiting their website, where you can subscribe to the podcast or RSS, free. More than 100 public radio stations playing BirdNote are listed here; if you like what you hear, why not ask your local station if they’ll carry it.

The BirdNote backstory: In 2002, the then-executive director of Seattle Audubon heard a short public-radio show called StarDate. “We could do that with birds,” she thought. In 2005 the idea became a two-minute daily public-radio show. Lucky for all of us!

  1. Mary says:

    A few months ago you gave away a wonderful book – “Tracks & Signs of Insects… by Charley Eiseman. I have been combing bookstores far and wide to see if I can buy this wonderful book, but am having no luck. Any suggestions ? Thank you in advance for your time – and I loved the brown creeper story!

  2. Lorie says:

    I have been blessed with a lone winter creeper for years. It “lives” on one old growth white oak which seems to accumulate the necessary insects in the bark to allow survival. The fun part is that this oak is right outside the windows of my sunroom that is 22′ in the air. So this little guy provides not only an on-going show, but a real lesson in perseverance and patience. I really depend on seeing him.

  3. Elaine Clark says:

    On the divided line of my property there are three very old and large black locust trees and we have brown creepers on these. we even bought some brown creeper bird houses that had tine openings for the birds, but of course a squirrel made the hole as large as a tennis ball. The little birds are hard to spot. they blend in very well. i think they are very fond of hard wood trees. I live in Baltimore Maryland.

  4. Sherry Macdonald says:

    We have a pair of brown creepers who spend a great deal of time going up and flying down to start again on an old tree to have a taste of a smear of a bit of peanut butter on the bark. They are often on our weekly Cornell Feeder Watch. On our many walks in our woods here in the Berkshires, their lovely flute-like song slides down the scale, even now in the quiet winter woods . It is such a marvelous treat as we go with our Doodle and Poodle. Today the song was in chorus with a resident Chickadee singing his early “Spring Soon” song. Don’t we wish!

  5. Jane says:

    Hi Margaret….Love your brown creeper story. I’ve seen them, but cardinals are my favorite. I call for them on our back patio with a kissing sound. They answer with their own sound and come almost every time to be fed. At times they can be found perching in a nearby small tree or on the wrought iron table and/or chair near the windows. When they see me inside, they fly directly to the wall where I spread the sunflower seed for them. I have been doing this for years and I know these aren’t the same birds, but generations of beautiful red cardinals. Enjoy your blog!

  6. Hello again, Margaret – thank you for the brown creeper story. I wish I could see one, but we only have smaller trees. Sometimes when I watch my beloved bird friends I reflexively think it would be an easier life than our burdened human one – then I correct myself – easier? No; less complex maybe. Do they ever feel anxious, or guilty, though? I sometimes wonder…
    The new website is spectacular – loved the old one, too – thanks for it all.

  7. Lorie says:

    Curious how long Sherry has been counting for Feederwatch. This is my 21st year and my area is much like the Berkshires with old growth woods close to the Missouri River in NE. The variety of birds in these old trees is a treasure year round, but especially during the barren winter months.

    1. Sherry Macdonald says:

      Hi Lorie,

      We’ve lived here in he Berkshires since 1982 when we started counting We have missed just one year since then. I looked back and the most # of birds that we had were Evening Grosebeaks! 75! and My journal comment: ” they are eating us out of House and Home!” Now if we see one, we are thrilled. Happy Counting..

  8. Jo says:

    The other day I saw little brown birds clinging to the outside of a brick apartment building in NYC like the photo above. I had never seen that before. I wonder if they were brown creepers?

  9. Jane in CA says:

    While walking near a huge cedar tree I spotted a brown creeper fly from a crevice with a small fecal sack in tow. I walked to the tree and gently tapped three times in the area of her departure. I was greeted by three little creeper heads instantly. I retreated quickly not to disturb the little family further– oh, but what a treat! Thank you Margaret for always including our avian friends.

    1. margaret says:

      Oh, Jane, I just squealed out loud at the image of this! Lucky you. How fantastic. Thanks for sharing…maybe I will get lucky this spring, too.

  10. Leisa says:

    I saw a small bird creeping up a large chestnut oak in our yard. He was so tiny and far up, that with my eye I could not see well. I told my husband, I saw the tiniest bird that I’ve never seen before. I let Google help me find this little fellow, and then later he visited the sill feeding spot where I leave suet (and see everyone up close and personal).

    This bird is reminiscent of a woodland creature from fairy tales. We are in their winter range, but I never recall seeing one before. It was both a surprise and a delight of the most enjoyable kind.

  11. ann says:

    I’ve never spotted this adorable bird in Michigan, but i just bought the birdnote book for me and my mom! She is in Maryland. Going to keep on the lookout because we have some old trees on our property.

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