Tree Creepers

by Pat Jaquith
pat@westvalleynaturalists.org

Certhia americana (Brown Creeper) on Larch tree 2.01.21

Certhia americana is the only North American member of the Certhiidae (Treecreeper) family. Thanks to its long, thin tail, it measures 5.25 inches, but it appears to be about the same size as a Pygmy nuthatch, with which it could be confused. “A prisoner of the forest, the creeper seems unable to escape the gravitational pull of the tree trunk on which it creeps, ever upward” writes Bryan Pfeiffer. They live in mature coniferous forests, not wandering far afield.

Brown Creeper under the suet feeder 1.21.21

Brown Creepers have an appetite for insects, spiders, stinkbugs, and more when available. In winter, I have discovered them coming to the tree where I hang suet and peanut butter feeders. I’ve only occasionally seen them on the ground; usually they are gleaning from the bark of the bole of the tree (and never even on a limb). Chickadees, three species of Nuthatch, and members of the Woodpecker family feed on the suet and peanut butter then clean their bills or stash extra in bark crevices. I believe that the Creeper is raiding that stash.

Brown Creeper on Douglas Fir near Cliff Lake, Pig Farm 9.27.19

I was attracted to a group of several small, nuthatch-sized birds flitting among some Douglas fir trees and stopped to see what they were up to. The nasal call of the Red-breasted Nuthatch identified one bird. Upon closer inspection, at least one Brown Creeper was keeping company with three or four Nuthatches. Brown Creepers distinguish themselves by their pattern of landing at the bottom of a tree, spiraling their way up to the top, dropping down to the bottom of the same or another tree, and working their way up in a spiral. They don’t stay long on one side of the tree before they disappear around the side! If you see a small bird coming down a tree headfirst, you know it’s NOT a Brown creeper!
Brown Creepers’ high, thin “tsweet, tset, tset” song is used in attracting a mate and is heard most frequently in spring. It is so high-pitched, many people have difficulty hearing it. Creepers build a small hammock-like nest behind a piece of loose bark. Their eggs are about the size of a shelled almond.

Brown Creeper using tail as prop on Larch Tree 12.28.19
Northern Flicker’s tail as it feeds on suet 1.25.21

Flicker tails and Brown Creeper tails are similar in form and function. In this picture it’s easier to see the stiff barbs that make the tail a sturdy prop when the feet are not engaged. Brown Creepers’ feet are very similar to those of Nuthatches with their long claws that hook into tree bark.

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