Contributed by Winsor Marrett Tyler
[Published in 1948: Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 195: 56-70]
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. As he climbs up the tree, he is feeding, picking up tiny bits of food that he finds half-hidden in the crevices of bark along his path. In his search he does not work like the woodpeckers, those skilled mechanics whose work requires the use of carpenter's tools, the drill and chisel. The creeper's success depends on painstaking scrutiny, thoroughness, and almost, it seems conscientiousness. Edmund Selous (1901), speaking of the European tree-creeper, a bird close to ours in habit, uses the exact word to show us the creeper at work. "His head," he says, "which is as the sentient handle to a very delicate instrument, is moved with such science, such dentistry, that one feels and appreciates each turn of it."
Spring.--The creeper is rather a solitary bird as we see it in its winter quarters and in spring on the way northward to its summer home. We often find it, to be sure, feeding near chickadees, nuthatches, and golden-crowned kinglets, but there seems to be no close association between it and the other members of the gathering. The creeper pays little or no attention to the birds about him and by no means always follows them in their wanderings.
There is little change in his behavior as spring advances; he is the same calm, preoccupied searcher he has been all through the winter, but before the close of March he may, on rare occasions, sing his delicate song. When we hear it--a strangely wild song for so prosaic a character--we, who live not too far from the creeper's northern forests, suspect that the singer may have a mate, or is attempting to acquire one, and if the song continues into May, and if the bird frequents a locality where the trees are broken, burned, or dying, we shall do well to look about for a nest, or the preparation for one, because the bird often breeds well into the south of its normal range, provided that the surroundings are favorable for nesting.
Ordinarily we meet but one creeper, or at most two, in a woodland of moderate extent, but Dayton Stoner (1932) states: "During May 1929 season, when the brown creeper was unusually common in several districts on the south side of Oneida Lake [New York], I often came upon small groups of three to six individuals in the woods, all within a few yards of one another. Perhaps not another individual would be seen for an hour or even during the entire morning. This apparent concentration of birds within localized areas led me to believe that a more or less concerted movement was taking place and that the species traveled in loose groups, not close enough to be termed flocks."
Courtship.--The creeper's courtship appears to consist of a display of agility in the air. Once in a while we see a bird launch out from a tree and at top speed twine around it close to the bark, then dart away and twist around another tree, or weave in and out among the surrounding trees and branches. He has thrown off his staid creeper habits and has become for a time a care-free aerial sprite, giving himself up, it seems, to an orgy of speed, wild dashes, and twists and turns in the air. But after a round or two, back on the bark again, he resumes his conventional routine and becomes once more a brown creeper.
Chreswell J. Hunt (1907) describes a somewhat similar excursion through the air, associated with the pursuit of another creeper. He says:
It was on March 9, 1904. . .that I saw two Brown Creepers engaged in this game of tag. In my experience the Brown Creeper always alights near the base of a tree trunk and then works upward, his course being a spiral one--he travels round and round as he climbs upward. In the pursuit I speak of this same program was carried out, only instead of climbing up the trunk the birds would fly up. They alighted near each other upon the tree, then number one would take wing and fly upward, describing one or two complete spirals about the trunk and again alight upon it with number two following in close pursuit. To travel in a spiral course seemed to be such a well formed habit that they could not get away from it. It was not simply a chance flight, for I saw it repeated again and again.
Nesting.--There is a bit of interesting history in regard to the nesting of the brown creeper. Alexander Wilson (Wilson and Bonaparte, 1832) says: "The brown creeper builds his nest in the hollow trunk or branch of a tree, where the tree has been shivered, or a limb broken off, or where squirrels or woodpeckers have wrought out an entrance, for nature has not provided him with the means of excavating one for himself." He says nothing however, about the nest itself. Thomas Nuttall's (1832) remarks on the situation of the nest consist, as usual, in a rephrasing of Wilson's report, but Audubon (1841a) while obviously copying Wilson in speaking of the situation of the nest, adds that he himself has found nests, saying: "All the nests which I have seen were loosely formed of grasses and lichens of various sorts, and warmly lined with feathers, among which I in one instance found some from the abdomen of Tetrao umbellus."
Many years later, with the idea of setting right a long-standing error of the older ornithologists as to the situation of the creeper's nest, Dr. Thomas M. Brewer (1879) published an article in the spring of 1897 in which he says:
In "North American Birds" [i.e., Baird, Brewer, and Ridgway, 1874] it is said to breed in hollow trees, in the deserted holes of Woodpeckers, and in decayed stumps and branches of trees. This statement is rather legendary than positively ascertained, and I am now inclined to somewhat modify this opinion, the more so that I learn from Mr. Dresser that the European C. familiaris usually places its nest between the detached bark and the trunk of a large tree. This exactly describes the situation of the nest found in Grand Menan, and of six or seven other nests since identified and described to me. All of these nests have been in just such situations and in no other. Instead of this being exceptional, it is probable that this is our Creeper's most usual mode of nesting, and that this is one of several reasons that unite to make this nest one so rarely discovered.
The hint contained in this article aroused the interest of William Brewster (1879), who, in the following spring, searched the region of Lake Umbagog, Maine, for creepers' nests and in the fall published and account of his investigations. "During former seasons," he says, "I had wasted much valuable time in sounding old Woodpecker's holes and natural cavities about places where the birds were evidently nesting; but, with the right clue at last in my possession, I succeeded on this occasion in finding quite a number of nests." The following description of a nest is a good example of those he found:
The tree selected was a tall dead fir, that stood in the shallow water just outside the edge of the living forest, but surrounded by numbers of its equally unfortunate companions. Originally killed by inundation, its branches had long ago yielded to the fury of the winter storms, and the various destroying agents of time had stripped off the greater part of the bark until only a few persistent scales remained to chequer the otherwise smooth, mast-like stem. One of these, in process of detachment, had started away from the trunk below, while its upper edges still retained a comparatively firm hold, and within the space thus formed the cunning little architect had constructed her nest. The whole width of the opening had first been filled with a mass of tough but slender twigs (many of them at least 6 inches in length), and upon its foundation the nest proper had been constructed. It was mainly composed of the fine inner bark of various trees, with an admixture of a little Usnea moss and a number of spiders' cocoons. The whole mass was firmly but rather loosely put together, the different particles retaining their proper position more from the adhesion of their rough surfaces than by reason of any special arrangement or interweaving. The general shape of the structure necessarily conformed nearly with that of the space within which it was placed, but a remarkable feature was presented by the disposition of the lateral extremities. These were carried upward to a height of several inches above the middle of the nest, ending in long narrow points or horns, which gave to the whole somewhat the shape of a well-filled crescent. In the center or lowest part of the sag thus formed was the depression for the reception of the eggs--an exceedingly neat, cup-shaped hollow, bordered by strips of soft, flesh-colored bark and lined with feathers from Ducks and other wild birds. The whole was fastened to the concave inner surface of the bark-scale rather than to the tree itself, so that when the former was detached it readily came off with it. . . .
With respect to their general plan of construction, all of the eight nests which I have examined were essentially similar. Indeed, the uniform character of the nesting-sites chosen by the different pairs of birds was not a little remarkable. Thus, in every single instance that came under my observation the nest was placed on a balsam fir, though spruce, birch, or elm stubs were often much more numerous, and frequently presented equally good accommodations. Again, in no instance did the tree resorted to retain more than three or four pieces of bark, while oftentimes the scale that sheltered the nest was the only one that remained. The height varied from 5 to 15 feet, but this particular was perhaps sometimes determined more by necessity than by any individual preference, as I noticed that when several equally suitable bark-scales occurred on the same tree, the lowest was invariably the one taken. In one such case the nest was so low that I could easily look into it by standing up in my boat. As before indicated, the size and shape of the different structures varied with that of the cavities in which they were placed. When the space between the bark and trunk was very narrow, the foundation of sticks was entirely dispensed with, the nest being then entirely composed of bark. Of the five examples now before me, only two are feather-lined, the remaining three being simply finished with shreds of the reddish inner fir bark of a somewhat finer quality than those which make up the outer part of the structure. The most striking feature of all is the prolongation of the upper corners, already described. In one extreme specimen these horns rise four inches above the central cup that contains the eggs. They are, perhaps, designed to act as stays or supports, as they are firmly attached to the rough inner surface of the bark which sustains the nest.
The experience of Dr. Brewer and Mr. Brewster proved satisfactorily that creepers build their nests behind bits of loosened bark, yet there remained a good record by Professor Aughey, who in 1865 had found a nest in a knothole. Brewster investigated this record and explains it this way:
Were it not for Professor Aughey's testimony we might fairly be inclined to suspect that all our earlier accounts of this Creeper's nesting were either founded upon hearsay or were purely fictitious. But we have this gentleman's satisfactory assurance that in Nebraska the Creeper does sometimes nest in holes in trees. Being desirous of obtaining further particulars regarding the nest mentioned by him in his paper on "The Nature of the Food of the Birds of Nebraska," and referred to by Dr. Brewer in the April Bulletin, I wrote to Professor Aughey on the subject, and the following is an extract from his very courteous reply: "In reference to Certhia familiaris, it is certain that in Nebraska, where its favorite position for nesting under scales of loose bark is in some localities difficult to obtain, it makes a nest in knot-holes. I have found two other nests in such places-- one in June 1877, between Bellevue and Omaha, on the Missouri Bluffs, in a box-elder tree; another in June of the present season on Middle Creek, 4 miles from Lincoln, also in a box-elder. I have also found several in the ordinary positions where old cottonwoods or elms abounded. It is therefore my conviction that this method of nesting in knot-holes was inaugurated because of the scarcity of the ordinary positions. I could not find any tree nearby where a nesting place under bark could have been obtained in these instances of nesting in knot-holes."
The records of Macoun and Macoun (1900) may perhaps be accounted for in the same way. They say: "Have taken several nests in Ottawa, always in deserted woodpecker's holes."
A creeper's nest presents an odd appearance when it and the bark to which it adheres firmly are removed from the tree. In shape it is like a loosely hung hammock or a new moon, the horns built up high at the sides of the nest, which seems to hang suspended between them. The structure bears a striking resemblance to those little windrows that we see on a forest path after the passing of a summer shower when the flowing water has pushed along the loose twigs, leaves, and pine needles and has left them lying in long, curved heaps, crescent-shaped like the creeper's nest.
The nest is apparently built entirely by the female bird, but her mate often brings in nesting material and delivers it to her. I quote from my notes (Winsor M. Tyler, 1914) taken as I watched a pair building a nest in Lexington, Mass., in 1913:
When we first came upon the pair, the female was making long flights from the nest. She brought in bits of bark and some fuzzy material (fern down or caterpillar webbing). We saw her collect also bits of bark from nearby trees. Twice at least the male brought material and delivered it (bark or dead wood) to the female who was in the nest cavity. The female made half a dozen long flights, returning every 2 minutes. Then she flew eight times in the next 10 minutes to a very small dead white pine a few yards away and returned each time with one or more fine twigs. Often after returning with a twig 6 inches long, she had some difficulty forcing it through the entrance hole. She was wise enough, however, to turn her head so that the twig might slip in end first. Once, when she brought in a beakful of fern down, the material kept catching on the rough bark and tripping her up, but by bending her neck backward she was able to hold the stuff clear of the bark. In her trips to the little dead pine, the Creeper always alighted on the slender trunk, but in order to reach the terminal twigs she had to hop out on the smaller branches. Sometimes, when these were very small, she perched crosswise upon the; often she crawled around them--her back to the earth. When perched, her tail hung straight downward, like a Phoebe's or a Brown Thrasher's when he sings. She broke off the twigs by tugging at them while perched or while fluttering in the air. . . .
The use of both the fern down and the webbing is, I believe, to bind the twigs together and to hold the nest to the bark, against which it rests. In the first nest site, if it had not been for this adhesion, the nest would have fallen to the ground of its own weight, for its base was unsupported. . . .
The female flew to the nest with a bit of bark (2 1/2 x 1/4 inches), then pulled from the protruding base of the nest a piece of fuzz and took it into the cavity. Five minutes later she (or her mate) crept again to the base and pulled off a bit of bark which she carried within. The economical habit of using material twice (first for the foundation and later for building the nest proper) is apparently a common practice. We saw it again and again.
Verdi Burtch points out that the extensive killing of trees furnishes brown creepers with many sites suitable for nesting. He says: "In the very cold winter of 1903 and 1904, with water 2 to 3 feet deep in Potter Swamp, New York, the ice froze to such a depth that hundreds of trees were killed. A few years later, the bark below the water line came off, and the bark higher up split and, curling inward, made ideal nesting sites for the creepers. This was the condition in 1906 and 1907, and the creepers were quick to take advantage of it."
A similar condition prevailed in eastern Massachusetts about 1913, following an invasion of gypsy moths.
In addition to such fortuitous nesting sites as those mentioned above, there are other stations far to the south of the creeper's normal breeding range where the bird finds surroundings adapted to its nesting requirements. For example, Kennard and McKechnie (1905) found several nests in inundated white cedar swamps near the town of Canton, Massachusetts, and Dr. Arthur P. Chadbourne (1905) found a nest containing young in a similar swamp in Plymouth County, Mass. He remarks: "The conditions which determine the distribution of the Creeper in this region, are apparently a very moist, humid atmosphere, dense evergreen growth, through which the sun penetrates with difficulty, and considerable extent of wild woodland which is not disturbed by man throughout the nesting season."
Arthur Loveridge found two deserted nests, each holding three eggs, behind the shutters of a cabin on an island in the Belgrade Lakes, Maine.
Eggs.--[AUTHOR'S NOTE: The brown creeper lays four to eight eggs to a set, most commonly five or six. They are usually ovate in shape, with variations toward short-ovate, or more often toward elliptical-ovate. The ground color is generally pure white but sometimes creamy white. They are usually more or less sparingly marked with small spots, fine dots, or mere pin points; the larger spots are often concentrated in a ring about the larger end, in which case the rest of the egg has only a few fine markings; some eggs are nearly immaculate. Shades of reddish brown predominate in the markings, such as "hazel" or other bright browns, but darker browns, such as "Kaiser brown" or "liver brown," are not rare. I have seen one unusual set that was heavily marked with these darker browns in large blotches three-sixteenths of an inch long.
The measurements of 40 eggs in the United States National Museum average 15.1 by 11.8 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 15.8 by 12.2, 15.5 by 12.7, and 13.7 by 10.7 millimeters.]
Young.--The nestling creeper has not far to go to reach his native bark, and in 13 or 14 days after hatching he is ready to undertake the short journey. The following note tells of a brood that I (1914) watched on their first day after leaving the nest:
The young birds left the Concord nest early on June 4 (possibly June 3). At 8 a.m., two were clinging, 30 feet from the ground, to the trunk of a living white pine tree which stood not far from the nest. One or two more were on another pine trunk. The little birds were extremely difficult to find by reason of their small size, their distance from the ground, the inconspicuous color and especially because each took a station in the dark shadow immediately below a horizontal limb. Here they remained motionless for many minutes. Later, two young birds, one following the other, moved upward by feeble hitches and perched or squatted close to the trunk in the right angle formed by the limb. In hitching over the bark, they moved almost straight upward and whenever I saw them as a silhouette against the sky, and could thus determine the point, they did not use their tails for support. The shortness of the young Creeper's tails gave to their bodies a rounded, unbird-like outline and, with their short, stubby bills of wide gape and their squatting position on the upright bark they suggested tree-toads to no small degree. Like most young birds after they leave the nest, the fledgling Creepers were more noisy than they had been the day before. They announced their whereabouts to their parents with a note not previously heard--a high sibilant call, "tssssi," or sometimes clearly divided into two syllables thus: "ts-tssi." The voice was very slightly tremulous and, although the pitch and delivery of the notes were decidedly Creeper-like, they suggested to Mr. Faxon and me a flock of Cedarbirds.
Wiliam Brewster (1938) states that the young birds "when held against the trunk of a tree instantly crept upwards using the short tail precisely in the manner of the old bird." Dayton Stoner (1932) speaks of young creepers thus:
Below the nest, the bark clung firmly to the tree, but above, it bulged out so that it formed a canopy for the nest beneath which the young birds might have taken their first lessons in climbing.
As I stood viewing the situation in general and the young birds in particular, four of them climbed into this covered space and, as I attempted to capture them, made a short flight into the surrounding vegetation. A little later I saw an adult feeding one of the youngsters clinging to the side of a tree. The young one did fairly well in its first attempts at climbing in the open, but seemed to have some difficulty in clinging to the smooth bark of the maples and moved about on these trees until it came to a little ledge of bark where it appeared more comfortable.
Plumages.--[AUTHOR'S NOTE: The young nestling is sparsely covered on feather tracts of the upper parts with dark gray down, which later adheres to the tips of the juvenal plumage. This first plumage is much like that of the adult, but the colors are paler and duller and the plumage is softer and looser; the streaks on the head and back are broader and less sharply defined and tinged brownish; the rump is paler russet, and the wing coverts are edged with pale buff; the under parts are buffy white, flecked on the chin, throat, and sides with dusky.
A partial postjuvenal molt, beginning early in August and involving all the contour plumage, wing coverts, and tail, but not the rest of the wings, produces a first winter plumage which is practically indistinguishable from that of the adult. Dr. Dwight (1900) says of this plumage: "Similar to previous plumage. Above darker, the rump much rustier, the crown and back with white shaft streaks, wing covert edgings whiter. Below, silky white, the crissum faintly cinnamon; tail olive-brown on the inner webs, Isabella color externally, a faint barring discernible, the middle pair of rectrices more broadly and less distinctly barred than in the juvenal plumage."
Adults have a complete postnuptial molt in August. Fall birds are usually darker, more suffused with buffy, especially on the flanks and under tail coverts, and the white wing markings are tinged with buffy white. Spring birds are somewhat faded above and dingy white below.]
The bird must have a close and important relation with the forest insects, but unfortunately studies have not yet been made that disclose the details of its food habits. However, we know that it devours weevils, leaf beetles, flat-bugs, jumping plant lice, leaf hoppers, scale insects, eggs of katydids, ants, and other small hymenoptera, sawflies, moths, caterpillars, cocoons of the leaf skeletonizers (Bucculatrix), pupae of the codling moth, spiders, and pseudoscorpions. It takes only a little vegetable food, chiefly mast. Most of the insects the Brown Creeper is known to feed upon are injurious to trees and we may safely reckon this small but very close associate of trees as one of their good friends.
Dayton Stoner (1932) remarks: "Most of the insects taken are highly destructive; and many of them and their eggs, and immature stages as well, are so small as to be overlooked by the majority of arboreal birds. That this bird is a valuable ally of the forester and horticulturist cannot be doubted."
Francis H. Allen sends us the following note: "When feeding on the ground or on hard snow, as it occasionally does, it hops with the legs far apart and the body resting back on the tail, or apparently so. The bird in this rather pert attitude looks very different from the demure and rather humdrum creeper we usually see on the tree trunk."
Behavior.--We think of the creeper as always climbing upward over the bark in a straight or spiral course until, after reaching a fair height on the trunk, he drops to the base of another tree to ascend it in like manner. This is his ordinary way of feeding, but he often varies it. We may sometimes see him take a short hop backward to reinvestigate a crevice in the bark, or take a hop sideways to broaden the field of his research, and, as we have noted under "Nesting," a bird may visit a slender branch and even perch on it, and he may also hitch along the underside of a horizontal branch, his back to the ground. Dr. Arthur P. Chadbourne (1905) speaks of a bird making "a horizontal run sideways and most decidedly crablike," and A. Dawes DuBois notes the action of a creeper thus: "He proceeded up the tree for a while, but soon began to search the branches, usually working outward from the trunk to the tip, and then flying back to the base of another branch. He seemed more at home on the under side of a limb than on top of it, for he went over the top only occasionally; evidently most of his food is to be found on the under side."
O. A. Stevens, of Fargo, N. Dak., in a letter to Mr. Bent, describes the behavior of creepers at his feeding station. He says: "From all our observations we feel that they are slow to change their habits. In the winter of 1941-42, three birds appeared in the tree near our window shelf and repeatedly worked up the tree past suet, nuts, and doughnuts where other birds were feeding, but rarely paid any attention to the food. After a time they came to the window shelf and ate the chopped peanuts regularly. It was amusing to see them swallow pieces as large as a millet seed. Once I saw a creeper pound a larger piece of suet against the tree.
"Dr. W. J. Breckenridge of Minnesota told me that the creepers were fond of peanut butter put in holes of a stick. I prepared such a stick and hung it in the tree. The first results were disappointing. Once a bird sampled it and went on up the tree wiping his bill every few hops. A week or two later they were seen to visit it frequently, remaining for some little time. One day when I took it down, they looked for it repeatedly. The tree stands some 10 feet from the window shelf. In coming to the shelf, the birds always work up the tree to the level of the shelf or higher, watch to see if the coast is clear, then drop as if to reach the side of the house below, but rising to alight on the shelf. They never come down to the shelf as most birds do. Frequently they eat a little snow from the tree; occasionally they walk out from the base of a tree, they always seem to fall off their perch and flutter, insectlike for a few moments."
The brown creeper is not a shy bird as we meet it during its migration; it doubtless sees few men on its breeding grounds in the northern forests. Clarence M. Arnold (1908) relates the following instance of the bird's disregard of man:
While walking along a wide wood-path I stopped to observe a mixed flock of winter birds in the trees nearby. There were Chickadees, Golden-crowned Kinglets, a Downy Woodpecker and a Brown Creeper, the latter being the first I had seen this season. For this reason, and also because this species is much rarer than the others, I was watching it closely through my field glass, standing almost motionless in the center of the path; meanwhile, it flew to the base of a chestnut tree about 50 feet from me, and hitched its way up the rough bark. It had reached the lowest branches, about 20 feet from the ground, when suddenly it left the tree and darted straight at me, and, to my amazement alighted on the left leg of my trousers, just above my shoe, in front, evidently mistaking the black and gray color for the bark of a tree.
Arthur C. Bent gives another example of the fearlessness of a bird on her nest. He says: "Hersey and I had been watching a pair of creepers in a pine grove, mixed with a few other trees, partly swampy. Today we found the nest 17 feet up under a loose slab of bark on a large dead white pine. The female bird could not be driven off the nest by rapping the tree or shaking the loose slab; Hersey had to poke her off."
Mrs. A. L. Wheeler (1933) reports the roosting of creepers on the porch or her house. She says: "For the last two winters I have been having some Brown Creepers clinging to the rough stucco in the entrance of our front door. Last winter there were two of them. They came about 4 o'clock, seldom later; they would fly to the bottom, then climb to the top, and 'snuggle' close together in the corner. I put a protection near, to keep the cold wind off them, but they would not come near until I removed it. They paid no attention to persons passing through the door, although they were within easy reach."
One winter afternoon at dusk I saw a creeper settle, evidently for the night, about 6 feet from the ground on the rough bark of a big white-ash tree. A cat was watching the bird and started to climb up toward it. When I drove the cat away, the creeper moved farther up the tree and settled again on the bark.
Some years ago I spent many hours observing the breeding activities of a pair of creepers. I append a quotation from my notes taken at the time (Winsor M. Tyler, 1914):
In watching a pair of Brown Creepers about their nest, whether they are building, incubating their eggs, or feeding their young, one is soon impressed by an air of happiness and calm which pervades the active little birds. From the behavior of many birds, one comes to associate the finding of a nest with anxiety expressed in various ways--with the nervous panic of the Warblers, the Robin's hysterical apprehension, the noisy complaint of the Crow and even with the polite uneasiness of the gentle Field Sparrow. The Brown Creeper, however, although doubtless observant, does not seem to look upon man as a danger; he continues his work uninfluenced, I believe, by close scrutiny. Happy and calm, even under observation, the Creepers appear preoccupied in their work and the comradeship of a pair is very pretty to see. The male shares with the female her interest in the progress of the nest; even though he knows nothing of nest building, he collects material and offers it to his mate. Ever ready to assist, he feeds the female while she builds and while she is sitting and, after the young are hatched, he is no less industrious than she in caring for their needs.
Francis Zirrer sends us the following note "In April 1941, a farmer nearby called my attention to some little brown birds that climb trees coming nightly to a hollow beam, at the end of his barn, that protrudes about 2 yards from the building to within a few feet of several pine trees, part of a considerable grove of pines, into which the farm buildings are set. According to him the birds come every night, enter the opening at the end of the beam, and remain there for the night. With a long pole, and standing on a ladder, I was able to touch the beam, which has such a small entrance that it is hardly noticeable from the ground, 25 feet lower. It was quite dark, but upon the touch with the pole, the birds at once began to come out, some flying to the trees nearby, others climbing around the beam or upon the walls of the barn. This, however, was enough, the birds were not molested further. We waited a while, but it was too dark already, and we could not see whether the birds returned. Next evening, however, we were there earlier, and had the satisfaction to know that the disturbance of the previous night was apparently forgotten; altogether 11 birds entered the beam, but it took quite a while, and much moving in and out, flying back and forth, and climbing around the beam, nearby wall and trees before everybody was settled for the night."
Frederick V. Hebard writes: "This familiar creeper, so common in the Thomasville-Tallahassee region, is absent or extremely rare in southeastern Georgia, except in times of extremely dry weather. Its nearsightedness is nowhere better illustrated than in our tangled branches and river swamps where, instead of dropping to the base of a tree after having reached the top of a nearby one, it drops only to the point where the trunk emerges above the underbrush."
Voice.--How seldom we should see the creeper if he did not sound his little note! Yet what a faint little note it is, the shortest, lightest pronunciation of the letters ts. He utters it as he climbs upward over the bark and as he flits downward to the base of the next tree. He often gives also a longer, more characteristic note, which may be suggested by the letters zi-i-i-it, a long, high, ringing note, but not loud, apparently broken into minute syllables so that it has a quavering effect. This note resembles the sound made by a small steel chain which, held by the end and let fall, tinkles into a little heap. A third note, more rarely heard, is a whistle, exquisitely pure, exceedingly high, and, if it were not so tiny, piercingly sharp. It may be given as a single long whistle or in a series of three or four shorter whistles. This note is clearly not a modification of the song, for it is used in the winter months and is not delivered with the cadence of the true song; it is, perhaps, a whistled form of the zi-i-i-it note.
The song of the creeper, heard rarely during migration, but commonly on the bird's nesting grounds, is one of the gems of bird music. Most often a phrase of five notes, a dactyl and a trochee, it is a simple, modest little strain, but it is delivered with such delicacy and daintiness and in a tone so pure and sweet that when he sings we feel we are listening to a delightful bit of verse.
Aretas A. Saunders says of it: "The song of the brown creeper is rather rarely heard. I hear it once in several years in the spring migration in April. On the breeding grounds the song evidently continues till the middle of July or later. It is short, weak, and very high-pitched. The pitch varies from the A above the highest note on the piano to the E above that. Most of the songs begin with a rather long note followed by one or two shorter notes that are a third lower in pitch, and these notes are repeated immediately, the six notes constituting the entire song. This may be varied a little by dropping one or two of the short notes or varying the pitch, but a majority of creeper songs are built on this plan."
Frank Bolles (1891) gives a word of praise to the creeper's song. He says: "While watching and admiring these gay survivors of the winter [two butterflies and a moth], we heard a brown creeper sing. It was a rare treat. The song is singularly strong, full of meaning and charm, especially when the size of its tiny performer is remembered."
Field marks.--The brown creeper is a tiny bird not much over 5 inches long and nearly half of his length is taken up by his long tail. He is brown on the back, faintly streaked with pale gray, and beneath he is pure white. His beak is long, needle-sharp, and bent downward in a long curve. His wings, rather long for so small a bird, make him appear larger when he opens them in flight.
When I first saw him he was in hot pursuit of one of the Brown Creepers and both birds were about over the middle of the river and scarce a yard apart. The Creeper made straight for the big elm which stands at the eastern end of the bridge. When he reached it, the Shrike's bill was within 6 inches of his tail, but he nevertheless escaped, for an instant after the two birds doubled around behind the trunk the Shrike rose to the topmost spray of the elm, where he sat for a minute or more, gazing intently downward, evidently watching for the Creeper. The latter, no doubt, had flattened himself against the bark after the usual practice of his kind when badly frightened and he had the nerve and good sense to remain perfectly still for at least 10 minutes. My eyes were no better than the Shrike's, for it was in vain that I scanned the trunk over and over with the greatest care. Feeling sure, however, that the Creeper was really there, I waited patiently until at the end of the period just named he began running up the trunk, starting at the very point where I had seen him disappear. It was one of the prettiest demonstrations of the effectiveness of protection coloration that I have ever witnessed.
Bradford Torrey (1885) tells thus of the defensive response of a creeper to the scream of a hawk:
It was the last day of my visit, and I had just taken my farewell look at the enchanting prospect from the summit, when I heard the lisp of a brown creeper. This was the first of his kind that I had seen here, and I stopped immediately to watch him, in hopes he would sing. Creeper-like he tried one tree after another in quick succession, till at last, while he was exploring a dead spruce which had toppled half-way to the ground, a hawk screamed loudly overhead. Instantly the little creature flattened himself against the trunk, spreading his wings to the very utmost and ducking his head until, though I had been all the while eyeing his motions through a glass at the distance of only a few rods, it was almost impossible to believe that yonder tiny brown fleck upon the bark was really a bird and not a lichen. He remained in this posture for perhaps a minute, only putting up his head two or three times to peer cautiously round.
Fall and Winter.--The earliest brown creepers that come down into southern New England in fall find the woods almost silent and deserted. The jolly little summer residents have mostly begun their journey southward, and few migrants from the north have arrived thus early--only the vanguard of the blackpoll flight and the earliest juncos. It is sometimes in the first half of September when the first creepers quietly and almost unnoticed appear on their winter quarters, before the trees have dropped their leaves, and when the first frost may be a month away, yet they bring us long in advance the first hint of winter. During their migration, we often see the creepers on the trees bordering the streets of our towns, in our city parks, almost anywhere there are large trees, but for the winter months they settle in woodlands or in the trees of large estates.
Speaking of the creeper on Mount Mitchell, N.C., Thomas D. Burleigh (1941) says: "Unlike the preceding [red-breasted nuthatch] this species, while it nests in the fir and spruce woods at the top of the mountain, invariably retreats to the valleys in the late fall and has never been found above an altitude of approximately 4,500 feet during the winter months."
Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Argue had a very unusual experience on
October 31, 1944, at Newburyport, Mass., near the seacoast. Mr.
Argue writes: "Walking toward Pine Island [a wooded area in
the marsh], we observed 20 brown creepers. The birds were climbing
up the sides of buildings, up telephone poles, and fence posts as
well as trees. Proceeding to Pine Island we found 30 more
creepers. Here they were on trees and rocks and even on the
ground. One bird alighted for a moment on my trouser leg."
Brown Creeper* Certhia americana
*Original Source: Bent, Arthur Cleveland. 1948. Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 195: 56-70. United States Government Printing Office