Photo: © Shutterstock.com/aaltair. Wallcreeper: note the dusky-grey head and shoulders with crimson on the wing coverts and base of primary
and secondary feathers
The wallcreeper is best known for scaling the Pyrenees and the Alps, but sadly is rarely seen scaling natural or man-made structures in the UK or in private collections. Bill Naylor explores the species’ distribution and behaviour
PERHAPS the most attractive and iconic of small foraging birds is the wallcreeper (Tichodroma muraria), sometimes called the red-winged wallcreeper.
There is only one species and two very similar subspecies. Its head and shoulders are dusky grey, but the wing coverts and the base to the primaries and secondaries are vivid crimson, with the largest primaries displaying large, round white spots.
The wallcreeper looks bigger in the body than it really is, because its wings are very broad and a third larger than similar-sized birds. In flight, the wing coloration can be seen from above and below. During the winter months, both sexes are an indistinguishable greyish-white, apart from the wings. But in spring, the male has a black throat and breast. The female sometimes has a small blackish spot on the lower throat and the absence of this spot is thought to indicate a young bird.
Wallcreepers are found in the mountainous regions of southern Europe and Asia, from France and Spain to China, in a discontinuous distribution. It can be found in the Greek islands, but favours high mountain areas such as the Pyrenees and the Alps. It is the only non-migrating European songbird and is common in Switzerland, Austria and Yugoslavia. In the Alps, it breeds as high as 2,743m (9,000ft) and 4,877m (16,000ft) in the Himalayas. As winter approaches, it moves to lower ground.
It’s also attracted to man-made rock faces and quarries, sometimes breeding in castles and churches. In Asia, it favours ancient buildings. It is one of the rarest vagrants to Britain, with less than 20 being recorded. In the autumn of 1793, Gilbert White noted a wallcreeper in Norwich. In 1908, a group of Lancashire cotton-mill workers was captivated by a wallcreeper, which spent a number of days climbing and descending the tall red-brick factory chimney foraging for insects. And in 1969, a vagrant wallcreeper attracted hundreds of birdwatchers to Dorset. Throughout the winter, it moved from one deserted quarry to another and even featured on TV. By March, it was identified as a male, having moulted out to reveal its black throat and chest.
Where do I belong?
The wallcreeper was originally classified with the treecreepers to which it has a number of similarities. Most notably is the large strong feet and long hind claw. Its broad long wings, which it uses to climb, are regularly held half-open and “flicked” in treecreeper fashion. A lot of birds flick their wings, but the flash of red emphasises it more.
The grey-edged tail is wedge-shaped, like that of a nuthatch, but not rigid enough to support the body, as is the case with treecreepers and nuthatches. The beak, which is a straight dagger shape, more resembles a treecreeper or spiderhunter’s beak. So if it looks like a treecreeper and acts like a treecreeper, it still might not be the case!
Brief moments in aviculture
The history of the wallcreeper in aviculture is extremely threadbare. During the 1900s, it was kept by German birdkeepers. These were probably wild-caught birds or nestlings taken from nests in old buildings. In the 1908 issue of the Avicultural Magazine, UK foreign-bird expert Allan Silver writes about an individual wallcreeper, obtained from Germany and kept in a large cage, that regularly featured on the show bench.
In 1920, a W.H. St Quintin writes in the same magazine about a pair of wallcreepers he acquired from Germany in 1913. He also kept them in a large cage landscaped with wooden planks that had been faced off with concrete to simulate rocks. He notes that they were steady and good feeders, but believes too many mealworms and maggots caused chronic foot problems from which they never recovered.
It’s a pity there’s no information on the compatibility of pairs of wallcreepers housed in aviaries. In the wild – like European robins outside of the breeding season – both sexes defend a territory and sing to stake their claim, attacking individuals of their own species and even larger birds.
The large “butterfly” wings make this species a skilful flyer. If raptors try to snatch wallcreepers from the rock face, they immediately take flight and evade capture using their acrobatic flight manoeuvres and diving with wings closed at speed. Although they’re an active bird (their generic name Tichodroma – wall runner – is more descriptive), wallcreepers sunbathe at every opportunity, as well as dust and sand bathe.
An indoor cage, even a large one, would be far too restrictive. They require a tall spacious, rock-landscaped aviary in an open position. This is provided at Europe’s highest zoo, Alpenzoo in Innsbruck, Austria. It is the only zoo known to have exhibited wallcreepers. They had been exhibited there since the 1960s, up until the last female died in 2015.
Courtship, nesting and fledglings
Early in February, the male assumes the black feathers on its breast and throat. His song is notably short and believed to have the fewest notes of any European passerine. There’s no alarm call or vocal contact with its young; probably because vocalisations would often be drowned out by the sound of mountain winds and rushing water.
Its body plumage largely resembles the surrounding grey rocks. So why the colourful wings? These are believed to be an important part of its body language. By contorting the wings, the white spots are displayed or hidden depending on the circumstances. In courtship and pair communication, they are vividly displayed, as they are when parenting. During a threat display to another wallcreeper, only the red parts of the wings are exposed.
The male selects the nest location and advertises this to attract a mate. This is usually a crevice in a gorge, which gets the sun for part of the day, often located under an overhanging rock above a waterfall or rushing stream. This deters weasels and stone martens, which are virtually the wallcreeper’s only nest predators.
The courtship display involves the male shuffling around the female fluttering his wings. (Not dissimilar to a treecreeper’s courtship.) Courting pairs also hold their heads aloft, beaks vertical, almost crossing them.
The female constructs a nest of compacted densely-matted moss, grass and wool in the rock crevice. Three to five white, pear-shaped, slightly spotted eggs are incubated for 19 days. The nestling period is 29 days. The young are a lighter grey than the adults and have shorter beaks and brown marks on the chest.
Predation of adults is minimal and inaccessibility of nests means that infant mortality is similarly low. This accounts for there being only one clutch per season, which is unusual in songbirds. The post-breeding moult occurs in August.
Rock climbing and other recreational pursuits impact on its presence in some areas. In others, it is fairly common. Generally, it is not globally threatened and this feisty crimson mountaineer’s survival appears to be secure.
Bill Naylor has enjoyed a 40-year career in ornithology and aviculture.
For more features from Cage & Aviary Birds, click here.