The brown creeper is an enigma, a small inconspicuous bird, solitary, difficult to find, see or hear. It is a bit mysterious.
They're easiest to see before the trees fully leaf out. Look for large trees on land that would be canopy-covered in truly green seasons. Parks will do, and county nature reserves. Wooded residential neighborhoods in Minneapolis or St. Paul would be good. (Our wooded backyard is good.)
Creepers are misnamed. A dictionary definition of creep is to "move slowly and carefully in order to avoid being heard or noticed." Creeper motion is what you notice.
They move quickly, nonstop, searching furrows, cracks and crevices of bark on large trees, mature trees, old trees with rough bark. The bird uses its tweezer bill to poke and probe for insects, pupae and eggs, and spiders and spider egg clusters.
It's a wonder they can find and grab food as they scoot along in short, rapid hops.
Creepers have a well-defined searching technique. They begin at the base of a tree, spiraling as they climb, hunting all the way. When they run out of trunk they return to the bottom and begin again, or fly to another tree.
They also will take suet from feeders.
The bird is cryptically colored, brown and tan with a light breast, all of it blending well with the bark on which the bird hunts. Movement is the clue, a blur of bird on bark.
Creepers have a faint high-pitched song, not much help in discovery. I've heard it once when a friend gave me directions to a creeper nest under construction. The female builds with occasional help from the male, creeper biographies say. He more often stands by, singing.
The nest is a clever hammock-like construction behind a snag or flap of bark on a dead or dying tree. Twigs and strips of bark form the base, held together with insect and spider egg cases, lined with soft materials like feathers, grass and moss.
Dead or dying tree habitat: Herein lies the problem for the bird. We tend to remove large dying trees.
A dead tree is a zoo, home to countless insects and birds and mammals. Many of these creatures are housing specialists, dead trees essential to lifestyle and survival. Large dead trees are best.
Tree disease is an unfortunate factor. Many trees die of infestations that in metro areas demand their removal.
The large maple in our backyard, our creeper lure, had a beautiful ash companion until the emerald ash borer arrived. That tree had to be taken down.
We still have three dead box elder trees in the unkempt portion of our backyard. (We also have neatness moments when I have to intervene on their behalf.)
The brown creeper is one of five creeper species in the world, the only one in North America. Appropriate habitat spans the continent, nesting heaviest in southern Canada. Minnesota has nesters, a few of which overwinter.
A major creeper biography, bulletin No. 669 in the Birds of North America series (available online) is 30 pages of small type. "No information" or "unknown" are words liberally scattered through the text, speaking to the difficulty of studying an avian recluse.
The section of this booklet dealing with conservation and management, the effects of human activity, contains over 5,400 words, an indication of concern for these tiny birds.
Brown creepers are unusual sightings, surprises on a winter walk, and nearly invisible in nesting season.
Lifelong birder Jim Williams can be reached at email@example.com.
Dead trees full of life
Trees can be dead but never lifeless.
Dead and dying trees are home to many animals.
The U.S. Forest Service reports that about 1,200 forms of animals rely on dead, dying or hollow-rotted trees of one kind or another.
Animals include everything from woodpeckers to opossums to bats to ants to worms to beetles to caterpillars of many kinds. Skip the opossums and you have a short list of one reason why birds find such trees so attractive.
Plus trees offer shelter and flowers and safe places to perch and watch or wait.
Dead and dying trees are neighborhoods of their own.
Keep that in mind before you cut a leafless tree. Think of it as a bird-friendly wooden sculpture.