The Brown Creeper in the Piney Woods

By Jay V. Huner
Journal Correspodent

The Brown Creeper is a tiny brownish bird that few people except birders ever notice. The late Professor George H. Lowery, Jr. describes this diminutive species as follows "...The upperparts are brownish with streaks of dusky and tawny, the rump is pale rufous, and the underparts are grayish white. The thin, rather elongated bill is slightly downcurved...." Careful observation will reveal a white line (supercilium) over each eye.

Brown Creepers arrive in our region from northern breeding grounds in the fall and depart in the spring. The term creeper describes the habit of creeping up (hitching up) tree trunks and along branches in search of insects and spiders. Their stiff tails are attenunated on the tips. This is similar to the tails of woodpeckers. This enhances the ability of creepers to hold onto bark and find prey in tree bark.

Brown Creepers are so well camouflaged that they are most often detected by a high pitched "see" call. But, this is very hard to hear with folks like me who cannot hear high pitched sounds!

Brown Creeper anatomy is so distinct that they rarely climb downward. They typically move in a spiral around trunks and larger limbs. They then fly down to an adjacent tree and repeat the upward feeding spiral. This differentiates creepers from nuthatches that move up and down and have straight, not curved bills, and are very vocal with much lower pitched voices.

A perfect description of Brown Creepers is provided by the naturalist W. M. Tyler in 1948. "...The Brown Creeper, as he hitches along the bole of a tree, looks like a fragment of detached bark that is defying the law of gravitation by moving upward over the trunk, and as he flies off to another tree he resembles a little dry leaf blown about by the wind...."

When frightened, creepers will freeze against a tree trunk with wings outstretched. They will remain motionless for several minutes until the apparent danger ends.

Creepers are generally solitary but sometimes they may be found in small numbers. A group is called a "sleeze" or a "spiral" of creepers.

Most Brown Creeper nests are situated behind a loosened flap of bark on a dead or dying tree. In some areas there may be two openings with one serving as an entrance and the other as an exit. Nests have also been found in odd places including behind window shutters, in or under roots, inside concrete blocks, and inside fence posts.

I've never seen a Brown Creeper at a feeder but the birds do eat some seeds, suet and peanut butter mixtures. They can be found throughout the region during the winter season. They are less likely to be found along the coast. However, coastal reports usually come in October after strong cold fronts push wintering birds to the coast. But, as soon as the weather calms most creepers move northward to forested areas. So, watch your feeders and you may find a wayward Brown Creeper almost anywhere.