Always in Season/ Mike Jacobs: Seldom seen, the red-eyed vireo sings persistently in June
The red-eyed vireo sings persistently, even incessantly, and somewhat monotonously. For this reason, the vireo is sometimes called “the preacher bird,” a nickname that isn’t intended to flatter the preacher.
The red-eyed vireo is another of those birds the field guides describe as “more often heard than seen.” In this case, perhaps, the description should be, “always heard and seldom seen.” The red-eyed vireo sings persistently, even incessantly, and somewhat monotonously. For this reason, the vireo is sometimes called “the preacher bird,” a nickname that isn’t intended to flatter the preacher.
The best transcription of the vireo’s song that I have found is by David Crossley in “The Crossley Guide.”
“A series of short hurried undulating phases continuing for a long time: wereup weredown, werin, wereout.” Plenty of other descriptions exist, some quite technical. The most remarkable thing about it, however, is how often it is repeated. No other North American bird sings so frequently, beginning well before sunrise and continuing through the day unlike most other birds that take a break. Red-eyed vireos sometimes sing at night, even!
The songs can be languid, uttered rather slowly, or sometimes more rapidly, up to 85 times in a minute, but more usually 25 times a minute, according to “The Birds of North America” monograph. There is also a sharp alarm call, which Crossley renders as Veer! He describes this as “an agitated slur,” and suggests that it “is sure to bring other birds closer.”
Clearly, vocalization is important to this species.
This is a bonus for birders, whose encounters with the vireo are usually vocal rather than visual. The bird is just plain hard to spot. Partly, this is due to its subtle, inconspicuous coloration and partly due to its habitat preference.
The red-eyed vireo is a blend of green, yellow and gray. This combination characterizes other vireo species as well. In fact, the word “vireo” literally means “I am green.” It is the first-person singular form of the Latin word virere, to be green. The Romans could not have been referring to the vireos, however; the vireos are strictly a New World clan. There are 52 species, 14 in North America.
I consulted “Handbook of Birds of the World” to learn these things.
A surprising number of vireo species have references to their color both in scientific or common names, including nine of the North American species. The red-eyed vireo is one of these. The red eye wouldn’t be a visible field mark on so small and elusive a species, of course. Instead, the facial pattern is the feature to look for. Red-eyed vireos have a gray cap and a prominent black stripe from the bill that tapers off behind the eye. Crossley asserts, “You are always hit by the strong facial pattern. Flat-crowned, large-billed bird with a mean look.” This sets the red-eyed vireo apart from most others of the clan.
Vireos are birds of forests, for the most part, although they may occur wherever there are deciduous trees. I’ve encountered them in shelterbelts and cemeteries, but they are far more likely in wooded areas of substantial extent, such as the Devils Lake area, the Pembina Gorge and the Turtle Mountains in North Dakota, and the Northwoods of Minnesota. Both states have the same six species, and Manitoba has two more. In this midcontinent area, the red-eyed vireo is the most likely of these species to be heard or seen.
“Birds of Manitoba,” published by the provincial naturalists’ society, calls it “one of Manitoba’s most common and widespread summer birds.” Robert Janssen in “Birds of Minnesota” says the red-eyed vireo is “a numerous resident throughout the heavily wooded areas of the state.” In “Breeding Birds of North Dakota,” Robert E. Stewart rates it as common in wooded areas in the eastern part of the state, including the forest along the Red River. The Grand Forks County checklist rates the red-eyed vireo as “fairly common” here.
In our area, these are exclusively summer birds. They are relatively late arrivals, and their nesting begins in early to mid-June. Red-eyed vireos are particularly likely to be encountered at exactly this time of year, when mating activity is most intense. The songs are meant to establish territory, and probably to attract and reassure mates. Southward migration takes the vireos to the Amazon Basin; many locally nesting birds start the trip in August.
The red-eyed vireo is another species brought to mention by Brad Dokken, who edits The Herald’s outdoor pages. He recorded the song and forwarded it to Dave Lambeth, dean of local birders, and to me. I hedged, suggesting first that it might be some kind of warbler and only later deciding on the vireo. Lambeth nailed it immediately.
Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.