Birding New Mexico

December 2020 Bird of the Month from Audubon Southwest

The Brown Creeper

A few weeks ago, I was birding in the Rio Grande bosque just east of Socorro, New Mexico. A high-pitched sound coming from a clump of Cottonwood trees caught my attention. As I scanned around for the source of the sound, I spotted a tiny bird. It wasn’t gleaning food from the tips of branches like a kinglet, nor was it moving head-down like a nuthatch. It was too small and brown to be a woodpecker. I’m talking about the Brown Creeper (Certhia americana) – one of North America’s smallest and most often overlooked songbirds. This cryptically colored bird has been described as looking “like a fragment of detatched bark” and “like a little dry leaf blown about by the wind”. Weighing in at only 9 grams, and with a body length of about 12 centimeters, it’s no wonder they’re difficult to spot. But just because you haven’t seen one doesn’t mean they’re not around – Brown Creepers can be found throughout the country almost anywhere where there are large trees, and they are year-round residents in much of the Southwest. A good way to tell the Brown Creeper apart from other small woodland birds is by observing its feeding habits. Using its tail as a prop (like a woodpecker), the Brown Creeper starts at the base of a tree and spirals up and around the trunk, searching through the cracks and crevices in the bark for tiny insects. When it reaches the top, it flies down to the base of a new tree and starts the search again.

Next time you’re birding or just out for a stroll, listen carefully for a thin, high-pitched whistle. If you inspect the trunks of trees carefully, searching for any movement, you just might catch sight of a Brown Creeper hitching its way up towards the top and flying back down. Brown Creepers often use dead and dying trees for food and for nest sites – they generally build their nest behind a piece of loose bark. To benefit Brown Creepers and many other species, leave your yard a little messy. Weedy corners and brush piles provide habitat for insects which in turn attract birds. Dead trees and snags are perfect homes for Brown Creepers – as long as the trees don’t pose a safety hazard, consider leaving them standing or just removing hazardous branches, leaving a tall stump behind for wildlife.  

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