Inconspicuous Bark Specialist: The Brown Creeper

Occasionally between October and April I notice a small bird dropping down to the base of a large tree trunk during my walks in Eliza Howell Park. It is a Brown Creeper, a bird that can be easily missed, camouflaged as it is for its role as a bark specialist.

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Photo by Kevin Murphy

The Brown Creeper is the only member of the treecreeper family of birds that is found in North America. It feeds mostly on the insects (and their eggs and larvae) and on the spiders that it gleans from cracks in the bark, creeping up the trunk of trees from the bottom to near the top, probing in cracks in the bark as it goes. It then usually flies down to the bottom of a nearby tree and starts up that one.

Even the Brown Creeper’s nest is typically in/under loose tree bark. Detroit is at the southern edge of the Brown Creeper’s breeding range, but so far I have not seen any in the park during breeding season. They show up here in migration in the fall and spring and are sometimes found in the winter. Their presence is unpredictable and they are always in very small numbers; I see only one or two on the few days that I see any at all. (This range map is from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.)

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While it usually climbs the trunks of larger trees, it can be found at times on smaller trees as well. Here, a side view shows the light-colored underside.

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Photo by Sharon Korte

This picture and the one below show how the Brown Creeper’s anatomy is suited to its creeping-up-the-tree and gleaning-insects-from-bark role. Note the long curved claws, the long stiff tail, and the decurved (downward curved) beak.

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Photo by Kevin Murphy

The Brown Creeper is a bird that is well named. Once seen and its behavior watched, it is not likely to be confused with other North American birds. Though inconspicuous, it is sometimes the highlight of a winter walk in the woods.