The well-camouflaged brown creeper lives throughout North America, including New Mexico.
The creeper is a small, uncommon bird with a brown and white back, white, puffy breast and a long, slightly down-turned bill. The brown creeper prefers mature woodland habitat in wet, shaded areas. In New Mexico, the creeper is most common in river valleys but expands its territory in winter to include parks and suburbs. This tiny bird can be found up to 11,000 feet in elevation.
Brown creepers feed almost exclusively on spiders, beetles, ants, gnats and fruit flies. In winter, they expand their diet to include some seed and suet. Eating one spider can supply the creeper with enough energy to climb about 200 feet vertically. Brown creepers search for food by creeping or spiraling up tree trunks, probing the bark crevices for insects. They always start at the bottom of the tree, working their way up to the top. They then will fly to another tree and repeat the behavior. Brown creepers are built for this. They have a stiff, long tail that serves as a prop, long, curved claws that hook to the bark, and both feet hop at the same time as they work their way up the tree trunk.
The brown creeper is one of the toughest birds to spot unless you know what to look for. Their brown and white markings serve as camouflage as they move up tree trunks and branches, so the best way to find this tiny bird is to watch for movement. Their very high-pitched song and call can also alert you to their presence.
During the summer nesting season, the brown creeper depends on dead or dying trees to build its nest. The female builds a hammock-style cup nest between the trunk and loose bark on the tree. The nest can be from 2 feet to 40 feet off the ground. Often, the nest will have two openings. The entrance faces downward, and the exit faces upward. Both the male and female share in raising the young.
Because brown creepers are dependent upon mature woodlands, wildlife managers often use creepers to gauge the effects of logging on wildlife habitat. Logging in the West and fragmentation of mature forest can adversely affect the brown creeper’s habitat.
Watch and listen closely when walking along New Mexico’s many river valleys for a glimpse of the elusive brown creeper.
Mary Schmauss is the owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Albuquerque, a lifelong birder and author of “For the Birds: A Month-by-Month Guide to Attracting Birds to Your Backyard.”