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Cori Brown: Wherefore art thou, vireo? | OUTDOORS COMMENTARY

May migratory madness has descended upon the birding world and while everyone is talking about the big stars like warblers, orioles, grosbeaks and tanagers, I’m in the hunt for secretive vireos.

Red-eyed and white-eyed vireos are the most common vireos here in our neck of the woods. You’ve never seen a one? I’m not surprised. Did you check the tree tops? Did you see something moving in the spaghetti masses of vines and thickets hunting for caterpillars? They are elusive little devils.

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They’re not flashy. They don’t have that cachet of handsomeness that so many other spring migratory songbirds have. They may not be contenders in the good looks department, but they are definitely in the running for a Grammy.

As soon as they open their beaks, they are broadcasting to the world, “I’m here, look at me!” The trouble is, where is that sound coming from?

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The first time I heard a red-eyed vireo in our backyard, I had no idea where it was coming from. The song was loud and continuous and I felt like I was in a movie theater with surround sound.

By this time, all the trees had leafed out and he was taking full advantage of them. His demure coloration only added to my frustration. He blended in so well that it was almost impossible for me to pin down his location despite his marathon singing performance.

The tough-to-spot but oh-so-worth-it red-eyed vireo.
The tough-to-spot but oh-so-worth-it red-eyed vireo. (Cori Brown Photo)

When I finally did see him, I was so surprised to realize that such a loud voice came from such a small bird. Only about the size of a sparrow, his olive green back and white chest and belly provided the perfect camouflage among the leaves. It helped though that he is a slower methodical hunter (compared to warblers), so once I locked on to him, he was relatively easy to follow.

He’s worth the time and effort to spot, especially when you get a good look at him. The top of his head is gray with a distinctive white eyebrow stripe bordered by soft black lines. And then there are the very red eyes (developed after the bird’s first winter).

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Those eyes are on fire just like his songs. In fact, the male red-eyed vireo sings and sings and sings all day long, sometimes more than 20,000 snippets a day. Yikes, that seems like a sore throat in the making! Needless to say, he stands out in the middle of the afternoon when most other birds are quiet.

To hear what he sounds like, go to allaboutbirds.org. Once you learn his song, you will know instantly who to look for.

The white-eyed vireo is just as much of a ham when it comes to singing. I heard and saw my first one a few days ago at Prettyboy Reservoir (which, by the way, is packed with all kinds of birds right now).

This guy has a bit more pizazz than his red-eyed cousin, but is still difficult to spot. I heard him long before I saw him. In fact, it seemed like he was following us down a fire break road and serenading us the entire time we walked. He prefers to hang out in thickets, shrubs, and forested edges (where I saw him) so you get a bit of a break from constantly craning your neck to see him.

A white-eyed vireo enjoys some spring weather at Prettyboy Reservoir.
A white-eyed vireo enjoys some spring weather at Prettyboy Reservoir. (Cori Brown Photo)

His white eyes, surrounded by yellow spectacles, are a standout. In addition, splashes of bright yellow can be found on his head and sides. Just like his cousin, he likes to sing his heart out.

Follow his song and chances are you will see him as he hunts for his usual diet of caterpillars, beetles, butterflies and moths among others.

Considered more of a southeastern U.S. bird, the white-eyed vireo’s range is expected to expand northward to Canada as it loses its southern range in Mexico due to climate change. This is according to Audubon scientists who are studying the impact of warmer temperatures on birds.

Fortunately for us, both red-eyed and white-eyed vireos have stable populations for now. On a broader scale though birds are facing numerous threats to their survival. In addition to climate change, many insect populations around the world are plummeting (National Geographic has several recent articles detailing these declines). This, of course, will have a major impact on any birds like vireos whose main source of food during breeding season are insects.

Let’s hope we can maintain and even grow their populations. It’s hard to imagine how quiet the woods and thickets would be without their sweet music, not to mention the constant game of hide and seek between humans and these little birds.

So get out there and find out for yourself wherefore art thou vireos. They are worth every minute of your time.

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