In the bands of little birds which in winter visit the trees about the houses, there are often three different species, all of which find their food on the trunks or large limbs of trees, but by such different methods that a study of their habits is not only interesting but also extremely instructive. The little Downy Woodpecker, like all its tribe, hitches up the trunk or along the upper side of the limb, using its stiff tail feathers as a support, and holding on to the bark by its two pairs of sharp claws. The Nuthatch, with a short weak tail, and toes arranged as in all song birds, three in front and one behind, has the toes, however, spread so wide that it can climb head downward, over, under, or around the limb. Least known of the three is the Brown Creeper. It, too, has three toes in front and one behind, but although not related to the Woodpeckers, it has developed stiff and pointed tail feathers. It therefore clings to the bark in an upright position, and it commonly begins at the bottom of the tree and works steadily upward, often in a spiral.
During the winter months, the Brown Creeper probably visits every village street and every city park in the Northern States, but as it is just the color of the weathered bark and moves close to it, it escapes the notice of nearly every one. If one learns to distinguish the fine wiry note, and watches the tree from which it proceeds, one sees the bird flutter to the base of a neighboring tree and begin again its steady ascent. When two birds are together, they sometimes indulge in a very pretty flight, and tumble in the air like pigeons. As a rule, however, the Creeper is solitary, and, in this respect, offers a marked contrast to its companions and relatives, the sociable Chickadees and Kinglets.
The eyes of a Creeper are so near the bark which it is inspecting, that it is not strange that it finds food where we should look in vain. It has, besides, a very long curved bill which will reach into crevices in the bark, and before the end of the winter, it has undoubtedly stripped the trees of a large proportion of the dormant insects and their eggs, especially as, like the other winter birds, it seems to have a very regular beat, visiting the same groups or rows of trees every day. Few birds are so strictly arboreal as the Creepers. The writer has only once seen one alight on the ground, when the bird flew to a little stream to bathe. In the ice storms which occasionally clothe every trunk and limb with a glassy covering, the Creeper has to confine itself to the leeward side of the trees. Occasionally the Creeper, on account of its practice of beginning at the bottom of the trunk, flies to a spot on the tree below the band of tarred paper, which protects the shade trees from the visits of the canker-worm moth. On reaching the band, the bird makes a circuit of the trunk, in a vain attempt to find a passage. It is better provided, however, than the wingless moths, and when the circuit has been made, a short flight carries it over.
In April, the Creeper leaves its winter quarters for the North, and joins many other species in the great spruce forests of northern New England and Canada. Occasionally, on warm mornings before its departure, the male indulges in a little song, of the thinnest quality imaginable. When the pair reaches their northern home, they hunt for a crevice under some great flake of loose bark, and there construct their nest. The bark of trees, therefore, furnishes the Creeper with a cradle at birth and a home for the rest of its life.