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The brown creeper is a small, forest dwelling bird, one that is often overlooked because it lacks flashy colours and rarely comes to feeders. It appears that some creepers will migrate during winter, though they are regularly found during the Christmas bird counts.
A brown creeper is about the same length as a black-capped chickadee, though much more slender. It has a relatively long, thin tail and a beak that curves down. The throat and breast are light-coloured, and the mottled brown back makes it blend in well with the trunks of trees. They will often remain quite still against trees in order to avoid detection. The song of a brown creeper is quite high and musical and is a good way to find them in the spring.
Creepers are generally found in softwood or mixed woodlands with enough dead trees for nesting sites. They also prefer moist areas. They are often found in mixed flocks, with chickadees, nuthatches, kinglets and woodpeckers.
Unlike the much more common red-breasted nuthatch, which usually spirals down trees in search of insects, the brown creeper tends to forage upwards. It will circle the tree as it is climbing, then fly down to the base of another tree to start the search all over again. Creepers glean caterpillars, small beetles, ants, spiders and true bugs from the bark and crevices in trees. In winter, when there are less insects, they will also eat seeds and nuts. They occasionally come to feeders to feed on suet.
Brown creepers make unusual nests under a loose piece of bark, usually on a dead balsam fir tree. Twigs and bark are brought in to form the base of the nest, on top of which grasses, feathers, mosses and shreds of bark are placed. The female lays 4-8 eggs and the young hatch after about two weeks. In another two weeks the young have fledged and are ready to leave the nest.
Following the nesting habits of creepers and many other birds can give you some insights into more wildlife-friendly methods of forest management. When walking through your woodlands, that dead balsam fir with the loose bark might look like its providing little “value” for the forest. Yet that is precisely the place where brown creepers will often nest. It is also clear that harvesting should take place outside of the nesting season (May to early June), since both the birds and the nests are difficult to see. Though we know little about this bird, it does help control forest insects and may actually have an important role to play in forest health. Besides that, as part of the natural biodiversity of our forests it has value in itself. We are starting to learn more about the incredible value of dead trees in forests and this is just one more example of how we all need to learn more about what makes up a healthy forest ecosystem.