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Montana Field Guide

Montana Field Guides

Brown Creeper - Certhia americana

Species of Concern
Native Species

Global Rank: G5
State Rank: S3

Agency Status
PIF: 1


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Copyright by: The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, all rights reserved.
General Description
The Brown Creeper is the only tree creeper in North America. It is very small: males 12.0 to 13.5 cm (4.7 to 5.3 inches) total length; females 11.7 to 13.2 cm (4.6 to 5.2 inches) total length. Average body mass for both is 7.2 to 9.9 g. Adult plumage is dark-brown on the upperparts, extensively streaked with dull whitish on head, back, scapulars, and wings; it has a distinctive brownish-white supercilium. Underparts whitish washed with cinnamon distally. The bill is slightly decurved, the tail long and stiff (Hejl et al. 2002).

For a comprehensive review of the conservation status, habitat use, and ecology of this and other Montana bird species, please see Marks et al. 2016, Birds of Montana.

Diagnostic Characteristics
The combination of brown and white coloration, very small size, and tree-creeping behavior distinguish this species from all other North American birds.

Species Range
Montana Range


Western Hemisphere Range


Range Comments
Brown Creepers breed from south-central Alaska east to Newfoundland and south through the Great Lakes states, New England, and along the Appalachian Mountains to North Carolina and Tennessee in the east and down the western mountain ranges and through the highlands of Mexico to northwestern Nicaragua in the west. They winter within most of the breeding range as well as at lower elevations throughout the continental U.S. and northeastern Mexico.

Observations in Montana Natural Heritage Program Database
Number of Observations: 2277

(Click on the following maps and charts to see full sized version) Map Help and Descriptions
Relative Density


(direct evidence "B")

(indirect evidence "b")

No evidence of Breeding
(transient "t")

(regular observations "W")

(at least one obs. "w")


(Observations spanning multiple months or years are excluded from time charts)

Permanent resident in the western part of Montana; an uncommon migrant, breeding resident, and winter visitor elsewhere. In Bozeman area, vertical movements and/or migrations occur February 20 to April 20 and September 10 to October 30 (Skaar 1969).

Creepers breed in coniferous and mixed coniferous-deciduous forests, preferring mature and old-growth stands with high canopy cover in the western U.S. (Hejl et al. 2002). Hutto and Young (1999) found that they were more common in mature western redcedar-western hemlock, spruce-fir, and mixed-conifer forests than in pine or younger forests in western Montana and Idaho. They winter in the same habitats used for breeding but also use a wider diversity of forest types, including uplands dominated by deciduous trees, urban and suburban parks and residential areas that contain large trees, and riparian cottonwoods. The consistent factor appears to be the need for large trees and snags (dead trees) for foraging and nesting microsites. Brown Creepers are the only North American birds that build their nests behind loose pieces of bark on tree trunks. They prefer to nest in large dead or dying trees within dense forest stands, placing their nests from <1 m to >20 m above the ground (Hejl et al. 2002). For 19 nests in mixed conifer forests of western Montana and east-central Idaho, 5 were in subalpine fir, 5 in Douglas-fir, 4 in Engelmann spruce, 3 in lodgepole pine, and 2 in western larch; all nest trees were dead and all but one in unlogged forest stands (Hejl et al. 2002).

Ecological Systems Associated with this Species
  • Details on Creation and Suggested Uses and Limitations
    How Associations Were Made
    We associated the use and habitat quality (common or occasional) of each of the 82 ecological systems mapped in Montana for vertebrate animal species that regularly breed, overwinter, or migrate through the state by:
    1. Using personal observations and reviewing literature that summarize the breeding, overwintering, or migratory habitat requirements of each species (Dobkin 1992, Hart et al. 1998, Hutto and Young 1999, Maxell 2000, Foresman 2012, Adams 2003, and Werner et al. 2004);
    2. Evaluating structural characteristics and distribution of each ecological system relative to the species' range and habitat requirements;
    3. Examining the observation records for each species in the state-wide point observation database associated with each ecological system;
    4. Calculating the percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system to get a measure of "observations versus availability of habitat".
    Species that breed in Montana were only evaluated for breeding habitat use, species that only overwinter in Montana were only evaluated for overwintering habitat use, and species that only migrate through Montana were only evaluated for migratory habitat use.  In general, species were listed as associated with an ecological system if structural characteristics of used habitat documented in the literature were present in the ecological system or large numbers of point observations were associated with the ecological system.  However, species were not listed as associated with an ecological system if there was no support in the literature for use of structural characteristics in an ecological system, even if point observations were associated with that system.  Common versus occasional association with an ecological system was assigned based on the degree to which the structural characteristics of an ecological system matched the preferred structural habitat characteristics for each species as represented in scientific literature.  The percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system was also used to guide assignment of common versus occasional association.  If you have any questions or comments on species associations with ecological systems, please contact the Montana Natural Heritage Program's Senior Zoologist.

    Suggested Uses and Limitations
    Species associations with ecological systems should be used to generate potential lists of species that may occupy broader landscapes for the purposes of landscape-level planning.  These potential lists of species should not be used in place of documented occurrences of species (this information can be requested at: or systematic surveys for species and evaluations of habitat at a local site level by trained biologists.  Users of this information should be aware that the land cover data used to generate species associations is based on imagery from the late 1990s and early 2000s and was only intended to be used at broader landscape scales.  Land cover mapping accuracy is particularly problematic when the systems occur as small patches or where the land cover types have been altered over the past decade.  Thus, particular caution should be used when using the associations in assessments of smaller areas (e.g., evaluations of public land survey sections).  Finally, although a species may be associated with a particular ecological system within its known geographic range, portions of that ecological system may occur outside of the species' known geographic range.

    Literature Cited
    • Adams, R.A.  2003.  Bats of the Rocky Mountain West; natural history, ecology, and conservation.  Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado.  289 p.
    • Dobkin, D. S.  1992.  Neotropical migrant land birds in the Northern Rockies and Great Plains. USDA Forest Service, Northern Region. Publication No. R1-93-34.  Missoula, MT.
    • Foresman, K.R.  2012.  Mammals of Montana.  Second edition.  Mountain Press Publishing, Missoula, Montana.  429 pp.
    • Hart, M.M., W.A. Williams, P.C. Thornton, K.P. McLaughlin, C.M. Tobalske, B.A. Maxell, D.P. Hendricks, C.R. Peterson, and R.L. Redmond. 1998.  Montana atlas of terrestrial vertebrates.  Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, University of Montana, Missoula, MT.  1302 p.
    • Hutto, R.L. and J.S. Young.  1999.  Habitat relationships of landbirds in the Northern Region, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station RMRS-GTR-32.  72 p.
    • Maxell, B.A.  2000.  Management of Montana's amphibians: a review of factors that may present a risk to population viability and accounts on the identification, distribution, taxonomy, habitat use, natural history, and the status and conservation of individual species.  Report to U.S. Forest Service Region 1.  Missoula, MT: Wildlife Biology Program, University of Montana.  161 p.
    • Werner, J.K., B.A. Maxell, P. Hendricks, and D. Flath.  2004.  Amphibians and reptiles of Montana.  Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Company. 262 p.

Food Habits
Forages primarily on trunks of live trees. In winter main foods taken include a variety of insects and larvae, spiders and their eggs, ants, and pseudeoscorpions; a small amount of seeds and other vegetable matter. Breeding season diet is the same as in winter, but possibly no vegetable matter is eaten (Hejl et al. 2002).

In using their tail for support, creepers are evolutionarily convergent with woodpeckers. Because it is energetically cheaper to climb upward than to fly vertically (Norberg 1981), foraging creepers invariably work their way up a tree trunk on foot and then fly down to the base of the next tree to resume the process. The ability of the Brown Creeper to use cryptic coloration to avoid detection by a predator was documented in the Flathead National Forest (McClelland 1975). When startled by a slight movement, an adult that had been ascending a trunk toward its nest suddenly froze, pressing its body and outstretched wings tightly against the tree. It was so well camouflaged against the bark that it required several minutes to relocate; the creeper remained stationary for another 5 minutes after relocated. The BBS is poorly suited for monitoring this species (Hejl and Paige 1994). Data indicate a decline in numbers of 0.3% per year survey-wide from 1980 to 2007 and an increase of 12.8% per year in Montana during the same period; the Montana trend data are derived from small sample sizes and thus are not reliable. CBC data during winter 1979-80 through 2009-10 show Brown Creepers were reported every winter, but with wide fluctuations in numbers, generally in a 2-4 year cycle, and no particular trend; high total count was 106 (0.0653/party hour) on 14 counts in 1998-99, low total count was 13 (0.0092/party hour) on 6 counts in 1995-96.

Reproductive Characteristics
Little information exists on the timing of breeding events by Brown Creeper in Montana, but several nests have been found in Flathead and Lewis and Clark counties in June and July (Montana Bird Distribution Committee 2012). The earliest initiation date for 19 nests found in western Montana and east-central Idaho was 7 May, and the median date was 2 June (Hejl et al. 2002). The nest is built in two parts, base and nest cup, behind a piece of peeling bark. The subelliptical eggs are white, speckled with pink or reddish-brown. Clutch size is usually 5 or 6 eggs (Hejl et al. 2002).

No management activities specific to Brown Creeper are currently occuring in Montana. Maintaining large blocks of unlogged old-growth and mature forest with high densities of large trees, dying trees, and snags would be especially beneficial to this species. (Casey 2000, Hejl et al. 2002).

Threats or Limiting Factors
Concern for this species results from its strong association with unlogged old-growth forest, especially stands of cedar-hemlock, which are uncommon in Montana and are highly productive for timber (Casey 2000). Creepers are always less abundant in clearcuts or partially logged forests than in uncut areas (Hejl et al. 1995).

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Citation for data on this website:
Brown Creeper — Certhia americana.  Montana Field Guide.  .  Retrieved on , from