Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Friday, April 17, 2020

Laura's Best Bird EVER: The Brown Creeper Who Went to School

Brown Creeper

I fell truly madly deeply in love with Brown Creepers in 1977, when I was a teacher at St. James School in Madison, Wisconsin. It was much more than the species’ subdued loveliness and shy ways that made me fall in love.

One morning when I arrived at school, our janitor brought me a creeper that had collided with a window. The bird had a sprained wing, so it remained in my classroom for several days.

Brown Creeper in my classroom
This is the actual Brown Creeper! I unearthed this snapshot of it from 1978! 

I’ll never forget holding that tiny mite for the first time—its forward-facing eyes, an adaptation to give it binocular close-range vision as it looks into the tiny crevices in tree bark, looked directly into my own eyes. Many stunned birds seem unusually tame, but this one was alert—simply very calm. During the following days, as it grew stronger and started flying, it never once acted fearful. That word Winsor Merritt Tyler used to describe them, sentient, seemed true and apt.

We kept the window shades pulled at all times so it wouldn't crash into a window again. My students bought mealworms at a local pet shop, and we set up several fairly large tree limbs here and there in the classroom where it could perch and hitch its way up. But in this peculiar habitat, the little bird didn’t limit itself to those woody substrates—many times it alighted on a student’s or my ankle and hitched its way up a knee sock, trouser, or pantyhose-covered leg.

After several days, we could watch it easily fly from one limb, human or arboreal, to another without getting grounded, we knew it was time to release it. The next morning we took a class field trip, walking to a nearby wooded park with the bird in a shoebox. When we arrived at what seemed like a good spot in the midst of lots of large trees, I opened the box, half expecting that the moment it saw the trees, it would take off. But no—it studied its surroundings with interest, and allowed me to pick it up out of the box even though I held it loosely enough that it could have flown. I handed it to one of my students to release. She took it from me, held her arm out, and opened her fingers. The little bird looked all around, at the trees and at all of us gathered around it.

It must have remained on her open hand at least 30 seconds—possibly as long as a minute—before it finally flew to the base of the nearest tree just four or five feet away. We watched it hitch its way up, taking its time, opening its bill a few times to snap up microscopic insects.

Brown Creeper being released in a Madison park
Snapshot taken with my 50mm Olympus OM1 back in spring 1978.
When it climbed 20 or so feet up, it dropped to another tree not much further away.

Brown Creeper being released in a Madison park
It's amazing you can see the bird at all in this and the next snapshots. But it's there, and I'm glad I found these photos!

We watched it climb that tree, and another, and another.

Brown Creeper being released in a Madison park

It wasn’t in any hurry to get away from us, and we weren’t in any hurry to get away from it. But little by little it worked its way deeper into the woods, and finally we lost sight of it. I said, “Live long and prosper,” and we trudged back to school.

Not one of us cried, at least not too obviously. How could we not feel sad to say farewell to our pleasant little friend even as we were genuinely thrilled that we had saved its life and returned it to its natural home? I assigned the kids to look up the word ambivalent for homework. I bet they still remember what it means. That little Brown Creeper, the only one I’ve ever held in my hands or looked at face to face was my Best Bird EVER.


As I hunker down at home, it’s lovely for me to think about my lovely experiences with various birds and do more research into their lives. During the time we’re protecting one another by staying safely at home, I’ll be more than happy to produce more species profiles and Best Bird EVER entries. If you have an encounter with an exciting new bird or just want to learn more about your favorite species, send me an email. I’ll give priority to requests by children who are homeschooling, but in a way, we’re all homeschooling right now, aren’t we? Email your requests to Meanwhile, stay safe and well, dear listener.