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III

THE BROWN CREEPER


BROWN CREEPER
1. Male       2. Female

IN the midst of a Massachusetts winter, when a man with his eyes open may walk five miles over favorable country roads and see only ten or twelve kinds of birds, the brown creeper’s faint zeep is a truly welcome sound. He is a very little fellow, very modestly dressed, without a bright feather on him, his lower parts being white and his upper parts a mottling of brown and white, such as a tailor might call a “pepper and salt mixture.”

The creeper’s life seems as quiet as his colors. You will find him by overhearing his note some where on one side of you as you pass. Now watch him. He is traveling rather quickly, with an alert, business-like air, up the trunk of a tree in a spiral course, hitching along inch by inch, bugging the bark, and every little while stop ping to probe a crevice of it with his long, curved, sharply pointed bill. He is in search of food, — insects’ eggs, grubs, and what not; morsels so tiny that it need not surprise us to see him spending the whole day in satisfying his hunger.

There is one thing to be said for such a life: the bird is never without something to take up his mind. In fact, if he enjoys the pleasures of the table half as well as some human beings seem to do, his life ought to be one of the happiest imaginable.

How flat and thin he looks, and how perfectly his colors blend with the grays and browns of the mossy bark! No wonder it is easy for us to pass near him without knowing it. We under stand now what learned people mean when they talk about the “protective coloration” of animals. A hawk flying overhead, on the lookout for game, must have hard work to see this bit of a bird clinging so closely to the bark as to be almost a part of it.

And if a hawk does pass, you may be pretty sure the creeper will see him, and will flatten himself still more tightly against the tree and stay as motionless as the bark itself. He needs neither to fight nor to run away. His strength, as the prophet said, is to sit still.

But look! As the creeper comes to the upper part of the tree, where the bark is less furrowed than it is below, and therefore less likely to conceal the scraps of provender that he is in search of, he suddenly lets go his hold and flies down to the foot of another tree, and begins again to creep upward. If you keep track of him, you will see him do this hour after hour. He never walks down. Up, up, he goes, and if you look sharply enough, you will see that whenever he pauses he makes use of his sharp, stiff tail-feathers as a rest — a kind of camp-stool, as it were, or, better still, a bracket. He is built for his work; color, bill, feet, tail-feathers — all were made on purpose for him.

He is a native of the northern country, and therefore to most readers of this book he is a winter bird only. If you know his voice, you will hear him twenty times for once that you see him. If you know neither him nor his voice, it will be worth your while to make his acquaintance.

When you come upon a little bunch of chickadees flitting through the woods, listen for a quick, lisping note that is something like theirs, but different. It may be the creeper’s, for al though he seems an unsocial fellow, seldom flock ing with birds of his own kind, he is fond of the chickadee’s cheerful companionship.

To see him and hear his zeep, you would never take him for a songster; but there is no telling by the looks of a bird how well he can sing. In fact, plainly dressed birds are, as a rule, the best musicians. The very handsome ones have no need to charm with the voice. And our modest little creeper has a song, and a fairly good one; one that answers his purpose, at all events, al though it may never make him famous. In springtime it may be heard now and then even in a place like Boston Common; but of course you must go where the birds pair and nest if you would hear them at their finest; for birds, like other people, sing best when they feel happiest.

The brown creeper’s nest used to be something of a mystery. It was sought for in woodpeckers’ holes. Now it is known that as a general thing it is built behind a scale of loose bark on a dead tree, between the bark and the trunk. Ordinarily, if not always, it will be found under a flake that is loose at the bottom instead of at the top. Into such a place the female bird packs tightly a mass of twigs and strips of the soft inner bark of trees, and on the top of this prepares her nest and lays her eggs. Her mate flits to and fro, keeping her company, and once in a while cheering her with a song, but so far as has yet been discovered he takes no hand in the work itself. It is quite possible that the female, who is to occupy the nest, prefers to have her own way in the construction of it.

After the young ones are hatched, at all events, the father bird’s behavior leaves nothing to be complained of. He “comes to time,” as we say, in the most loyal manner. In and out of the nest he and the mother go, feeding their hungry charges, making their entry and exit always at the same point, through the merest crack of a door, between the overhanging bark and the tree, just above the nest. It is a very pretty bit of family life.

It would be hard to imagine a nest better concealed from a bird’s natural enemies, especially when, as is often the case, the tree stands in water on the edge of a stream or lake. And not only is the nest wonderfully well hidden, but it is perfectly sheltered from rain, as it would not be if it were built under a strip of bark that was peeled from above. All in all, we must respect the simple, demure-looking creeper as a very clever architect.


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