Every once in a while, there is something that adds excitement to life with COVID-19. Just before Christmas we had our first-ever brown creeper (certhia americana) sighting at our house, and to our delight, the bird is dining at our feeder station.
Those of you who read this column already know that we refer to our collection of bird feeders as dog television. The patio door in the kitchen looks out at our feeders and the neighbors’ woods, where we see not only birds, but occasionally opossums, striped skunks, barred owls, and a variety of squirrels. Dog TV also features fox, white tailed deer, and wild turkey, as they travel between two woods. For the humans in the household, a sighting of something different than the usual array of seasonal songbirds creates a furor, so dog TV isn’t just for dogs!
The brown creeper is, as its name implies, mostly brown and buff, with white underparts. It is a small bird, sparrow size, and weighs between 0.2 to 0.3 ounces, about the weight of one to two nickels. The bill is long, thin, and curves downward, the better to pick up small insects and spiders hidden in tree trunks and limbs. Because they blend so well with the tree on which they climb, it’s their short, jerky motions in a spiral climb from the bottom of the tree upwards that catch our eye. Once they reach the top of the tree, they fly down to the bottom of another tree, or sometimes the same one, and start again.
Another fascinating feature of the brown creeper is that as it probes for food, its legs are out on either side of the body, sort of like outriggers. This position, along with its stiff tail and long curved claws, helps keep it braced while foraging. I am going to have to be faster with my binoculars so I can catch the unusual leg position of our visitor.
The brown creeper’s preferred habitat is large, live trees with furrowed bark where they can find a plethora of insects and their larvae. They consume stink bugs, fruit flies, weevils, ants, gnats, beetles, butterflies, moths, and more. As we can now attest, in the winter the brown creeper has been known to eat seeds and suet from bird feeders.
A third unusual feature of the brown creeper is its nest location, between a loose piece of bark and the tree trunk. The nest is composed of twigs and strips of bark for a frame, with insect cocoons and spider egg cases as an adhesive so the pieces will stay together and adhere to the tree. Hair, feathers, grass, lichens, mosses, and pieces of leaves may be used to make the nest cup. There are usually five to six eggs laid, which take about two weeks to hatch.
In 27 years at this house, we have never seen a brown creeper at our feeder, nor located a nest, so we are thrilled to have the opportunity to see one up close these past weeks. February is a tough time for many birds to survive in the wild because they use so much energy staying warm on winter nights that they lose up to 20% of their body weight overnight. Snow, sleet, frigid temperatures, and wind can make for a brutal combination.
To learn more about the brown creeper and other birds, visit allaboutbirds.org. The Ohio Division of Wildlife has several publications that you can download for free at wildlife.ohiodnr.gov, including fields guides for common birds of Ohio, owls, raptors, warblers and water birds. Nest box plans and feeder plans are available, too. The joys of birdwatching are endless!
Visit our website at soilandwater.co.delaware.oh.us to learn about our upcoming virtual workshop series, “Growing Healthy Trees,” and our annual tree and shrub seedling sale.
Bonnie Dailey is deputy director of the Delaware Soil & Water Conservation District. For information, go to https://soilandwater.co.delaware.oh.us/.