by M. L. A.
Volume 10, 1899, pg. 801-806
The Tree-Creeper--Certhia Familiaris.
The quiet, solemn woods of winter; away from cheerful valley pasture and open ploughed land, from cawing Rooks and aping Shepsters, fiom little herding birds that haunt the lanes and way-side hedge-rows; away, too, from fruit-bearing bush and sun-warmed seed-choked soil: in the shadow, where tree-boles rise columnar from fine, sparse grass, and grey lichen clothes the spread of boughs above! Then, all at once, upon the quiet, a sharp weak sound, more like the cry of little beast than the note of bird; a swift motion, straight as falling arrow, and something alights at the base of the tree trunk, and immediately scuttles, mouse-like, up it. A bird it is, not a quadruped, yet a bird so strangely fitted for its particular place in nature as to have lost some bird-like traits. It is the Tree-creeper, the one species left (broadly speaking) to Lakeland, of a large group of birds specially adapted for a pure forest life.
For little space in Nature is lost. The tree-bole shelters numerous insects that are born in the bark of it, that seek weather-shelter in it, that go to sleep there with the prospect of awaking with wings, and all these are the very nutriment of birds. So, just as the frame of one bird is sufficiently modified from the normal type for it to be able to walk submerged on the bottom of streams, and pluck off insects sticking thereon, so another is made capable of walking on an upright plane, and of picking them from upright cracks in trees.
Our Tree-creeper thus is fitted out physiologically for an existence of perpetual and perpendicular running, and his racecourse is the bole of trees. He may laugh at shrewd Robin, that sometimes wants to be in for the feast too, and flits jauntily on to straight trunk, making a feint of ease as he perches sideways upon it, For Robin's legs, accustomed to bear a weight of body superincumbent, would presently ache with such a strain of attitude. He need not trouble to chase the poacher off, and may pursue his business, secure in personal qualifications for a task too difficult for nore normal rivals. To be sure, those qualifications only include two legs by which to "creep," but these are as good as some creatures' four, being set outward, and spread in splay-footed fashion to the side. Besides, he has in his tail, what is as good almost as a third leg, or at least is equal to the stick of a lame man. For the feather tips of this same tail, curved in, press upon the rough bark, and serve him as support when pausing in a pendant posture. He may rest upon his tail, quite sure (unlike the monks of old on their upturned choir-seats, that lend them slight support through long service hours) that it will never slip from under him while he naps; it is a safe wedge.
This hanging posture on the bark is so natural to the bird that it seems to be assumed from a very early stage of its life. At a time when one would suppose that it would be necessary for the immature nestling to cower upon a supporting substance, or to perch (the true avian position of repose) we find the little creeper clinging to bark, and hanging on by it, just as baby ape is said to hang on to its mother's hair. I once saw a brood of three baby-creepers suspended in a compact bunch on the straight trunk of a larch tree, just high enough to be out of reach. Though fledged, they were so young as to be perfectly helpless; and they waited there with closed eyes and rudimentary up-turned beaks (a curious sight!) for the food the parent brought from time to time. I visited them next day--it was in a forest of Braemar--and found them moved further round the trunk, but looking just the same, hooked on in close file as sightless statuettes, only waking to greet the food-giver with faint chirps. Thus claws and tail are in full use before the bill is grown to its long curved shape, or is capable of probing into cracks of bark; and the bird suspends itself before it is capable of self-support. It seems to me very likely (but this I do not know) that it sleeps habitually in this posture.
Thus, fitted out with the right implements of foot and tail and needle-like bill, how deftly does our creeper ply his trade upon the bark! "Creep," after all, is not the word to express his action. He drifts upwards and to the side with a motion light as dead-brown leaf, stirred with air. Nay, when the autumn weather is hot and insects lively, he even dances upon his rugged boards, shifting by swift little springs, now right, now left, with a crisp patter of his claws on the bark, and--will he turn, like the minuet-dancers on polished floor? No, never! it is the upward course he loves. He must run ever skyward and not earthward, Even on a wall--and our shaded, moss and fern-grown walls, as well as pendicular rocks, tempt him sometimes--does he stick to his rule, invariably dropping on wing to bottom, to pursue his heedful way to top on foot. Thus, by his add reversal of the habits of birds, does he verify our human parable--that if we would rise, it must be by slow and careful tread, while to fall, we drop on wings of speed. But how well now, in the open glade can we see him! His colour is like the subdued gold of sun-rays when they filter through foliage, and make tiny pale patches on rugged bark; no moth could be more beautifully spotted and striped on back and wings and sides of head than he. Then his breast is pure argent. If we catch him sideways we may see its silver smoothness, and note his curious profile. It is one of curvatures--his back is round, his beak is curved at one extremity, his tail at the other. The strongly developed muscles of leg and feet give him a high-shouldered look; and his little pointed head and beak reminds one of a Shrew-mouse.
Then his quick, sharp, squeaky cry is not unmouse-like either. It is heard generally as he changes position in food seeking; he is silent as he runs, though I have known him to cheep excitedly the while he tugs at some refractory morsel in bark. This sound is often the signal of his presence in frosty winter woods, and of the neighbourhood, in spring, of a second Creeper, with whom he is possibly about to mate.
Song, as far as my knowledge goes, he has none, or, if he has, he successfully hides it in these parts. At what point of history this mouse-like runner laid aside the bird's great gift of song, who shall say? It may be he does not wish to make himself agreeable even to his mate. He certainly has not a sociable appearance; though, to be sure he is not averse to a certain sort of a distant companionship, and may be met with on the outskirts of those mixed parties of Gold-crests and Long-tailed and Coal-titmice that scour the winter woods together in a mutual protection society. But stil he chums or gossips with no bird, With eye and bill severely directed to the inch of bark in front of him he looks as if, like the Miller of the song, he cares for nobody and desires nobody to care for him; and, moreover, he does not injure his character for indifference by a statement of the fact to the world at large. He is jealous of his kind, for I have seen him, at nesting time, chase another from his tree. But how he woos, I hardly know. No doubs he is then in his quiet way, excitable and happy, like other birds, though not so indiscreet. To see a nuptial pair in May, running up and about the slender outward boughs of an ash tree, pursuing their business of food-seeking without a sign or sound of sentiment, is an astonishment, and a marked contrast of temperament to the pair of Bottle-tits in the same tree at the same time, so ecstatic as they follow each other with incessant pebbly-sounding notes of love, as to be totally oblivious of food-getting or of watchers.
Stil, the Tree-creeper, reserved and taciturn as he is, mates and breeds after his kind. We may, for instance, after a pair has established itself for some time in May in one particular spot of the wood, discover the builder at work. Presumably the builder is the hen, as in almost all passerine species, though the sexes are too much alike in this species to be readily distinguished. Down she drops in silent speed from above to the narrow chink chosen for a nest-side, that lies between the great oak-trunk and the knotted sycophant ivy-trunk climbing about it. There she places and arranges her material; first a foundation of small dead twigs to fill the deep but narrow pocket behind he chink, then rough light bits with splinters of rotton wood fibre and a few feathers for lining--all characteristic tree stuff gathered from above, except the feathers.
Next, in ten days' time, when the hen has settled to her long task of sitting, we may peep in on her solitude. She sits in the chink with head and curved beak thrown up, body pressed upon the heap of eggs, and her ordinarily downward-curved tail thrown up behind like any other bird's. When we withdraw our gaze, she will come off--the strain of eye-to-eye has been too great; and, alighting on an adjacent trunk, she will scuttle up it without a sound till out of sight. Then we may see the five tiny eggs, compacted in the tiny space, white with blotches at one end.
The nest is generally in a narrow slit. I have seen it set in the gashed bark of a larch tree, where the nest-stuff--fine larch twigs, with some sheep's wool and feathers--was wedged between the bare smooth trunk and the raised bark without any visible support, unless the trickling resin glued it. I have seen it, too, in a rustic and dilapidated summer-house, where the bird entered by a chink from outside to a considerable space between the inner and outer boards. This space the bird had proceeded to fill to the required height with a mass of small twigs, and upon this mass it had placed its nest sideways, where the aperture became narrower. Perhaps, this site was a last year's one, and early resorted to, for the youngsters flew from it so early as the 23rd of May. And by the 11th of June the bird was already sitting again on five or six eggs, in a new-made nest built up to the right of the pile of twigs, while the old nest had been on the left.
The Tree-creeper is not only a second nester under favourable circumstances, but conservative in regard to its locality. The same summer-house was resorted to the next year, when the nest unfortunately came to grief. And I have been told of a certain barnside in a place where big trees are scarce, which was returned to for several seasons, and the nest placed within the chinks of stone. The parents are perfectly silent when feeding the young; they collect and carry large beakfuls of insect food into the nest at a time.
It is a very pretty sight to see a family of young Tree-creepers at large, still feeble, but beginning to use their powers and to scatter themselves. All the little ones squeal sharply to call attention to their wants and their position, while the parents hurry up the tree trunks and back with food to supply them. One youngster, bold of wing, will follow its parent to the base of the next tree trunk, and scuttle up it too, though not so fast, and the old bird has to drop back to feed it. Another clings firmly to the bark, afraid yet to move, with all its tail feathers spread like a lady's fan, and every individual feather of its back marked round with light. It does its best, and tries to root in the bark with still short and inexperienced beak. But oance beyond the parents' care, the litle Tree-creepers appear to become miniature millers at once, each one engrossed solely in the feeding of its own little wheel of appetite. Again (for no migratory instinct would seem to trouble him), does the Creeper become the solitary small brown presence that haunts our quietest walks in winter. He goes on, footing it hardily through bitterest frost of Christmas time (a date no doubt unknown to birds, and not generally merry for them) when skaters spin over the ice below his slope of trees. And, secure upon his upright plane, the snows that fall and clog the land, and dishearten and starve non-creeping birds, affect him not at all. M. L. A.
Nature Notes For December.
Whenever the last month of the year is mild and open, late survivals of the past autumn linger on to greet the early harbingers of next year's spring. Ivy, which is perhaps most truly the last flower of the year, may still bear large bosses of bloom, to be on sunny days the meeting place and feasting place of all the flies and winged creatures that are tempted by warmth out of their winter holes. Still, even ivy will have its terminal umbels gone to fruit, and it will be only the lower and smaller ones that, bearing stamens, are not yet beyond the flowering stage. Some lingering Crepis or Hieracium may yet show a yellow disc, and daisies abound in cut lawns.
In the gardens, not one or two, but many species of spring flowers may develop and open their foremost buds. In the hedgerows of some Decembers, hazel catkins may be hanging limp and open; at the very end of the month, one may even, in occasional years, find the tiny bunches of little crimson tongues, that are the pistils.
Mosses begin to thrive once more in the damp, after the terrible summer they have experienced: there is an opposite to the proverb, "'Tis an ill wind," that might run, "Ne'er a sunny day but hurts someone." One may note in winter how there is nothing so barren in nature as to be without its dependents. Even the bare ash tree, whose fruit, as far as I know, no bird will eat, fosters life about it; for where it uprears itself by a dry stone wall, on which nothing but the greyest lichens and Racomitriums (woolly moss) will grow, there nourished by its drip, are thick round bosses of Dicranums and Hypnums, with topping sprays of the evergreen polypody fern.
Proofread July 2011, LNL
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