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The well-named Brown Creeper returns to London

Brown Creepers can be seen across the London area from fall to spring. They are a common bird but at times can be difficult to see because of their small size and camouflaged plumage. Photo by Paul Nicholson.

In mid-fall, while hiking through a woods, I might hear a short, insistent call note. It is a high-pitched trill that stops me in my tracks. It’s not quite a Cedar Waxwing. It’s not a Golden-crowned Kinglet. And then it dawns on me: I haven’t seen or heard a Brown Creeper since the spring, so it takes a beat to identify the sound. Creepers are back in Middlesex County for the winter.

This is a lovely species of bird to observe now and through the coming months. Although some Brown Creepers don’t migrate, ours do. They spent their breeding season in the boreal forests to the north, and are flying south to us now.

Brown Creepers are small birds. They measure approximately 12 cm in length. Their head, back, wings and tail are all streaked brown. This provides a highly effective camouflaging effect as they forage. The bird is sometimes described as a piece of bark come to life.

The plumage on their chin, chest and belly is white. The tail is stiff and it is often used by the bird for bracing support in the same way that a woodpecker might use its tail. If you look carefully, you will notice the curved bill of the Creeper. This helps the bird dig deep for insects and insect eggs in the crevices created by the ridges of bark. Males and females are almost indistinguishable with the naked eye.

Creepers’ behaviors are perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this bird. They forage most often by climbing up and around the trunks of coniferous trees. Once they have travelled up to the top, they will fly to the bottom of the next tree and continue feeding, creeping upwards yet again. They aren’t particularly strong fliers. Brown Creepers eat insects, even in the winter, however they may supplement their diet with seeds. They might even visit backyard feeders for suet and seeds.

Another interesting behavior of this species is that they will often freeze in the face of a perceived threat. With plumage that blends in so well with tree trunks, it is very difficult to pick this bird out if it isn’t moving.

Although very territorial during the spring and summer breeding season, Brown Creepers in the winter will consort with other species such as chickadees, nuthatches, and kinglets in mixed flocks. If you see or hear some bold and noisy Black-capped Chickadees, most certainly check to see if there are Creepers and other birds with them.

The Brown Creeper is a species that can be found in all ten of Canada’s provinces. Bird census data indicate that in north-east North America, population counts have remained stable over the past five decades. Bird scientists have also determined that there are a number of sub-species of this bird.

When you are next out in a forest, listen for the high-pitched tsee tsee call of the Brown Creeper, and then look for “that little piece of bark” slowly making its way up the trunk of a tree. There is much to admire about this tough and resourceful bird.

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