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It’s in your nature: Vireos

Vireos aren’t the “showiest” of the bird species. Some are actually very drab. But there are six vireo species you can locate in the Times News coverage area each spring through fall. Unlike bluebirds or hermit thrushes, none will overwinter in this area. They are strictly insect-eating birds.

In a column earlier this year concentrating on bird songs, I indicated that the red-eyed vireo would sing all day long. Actually thousands of songs each day. This tireless singer would belt out its repetitive song from just after dawn and almost to dusk. I think it only stopped singing when its beak was holding an insect.

Sometimes on a May morning when I’m trying to pinpoint another bird singing in the woods, the repetitive song often “drowned out” the quieter bird’s singing. But the summer woods would be almost eerie without the vireo’s song. Besides, he isn’t singing for our benefit anyway.

Besides the red-eyed vireo, other vireos making an appearance here are the warbling vireo, blue-headed vireo, yellow throated vireo, and Philadelphia vireo. The first three actually nest at various locations throughout this region. The Philadelphia vireo breeds farther north.

Another vireo that I have observed here is the white-eyed vireo. White-eyes are most common in areas just south of this state’s border, but maybe with our warming climate it too is moving farther north, just as the Carolina wren has.

Most vireos are around 5¼ inches in size, a little larger than the warblers. Their beaks are a bit heavier, not as thin, and a bit less pointed than the warblers. Their feeding habits are a bit different, too. Warblers are very active, usually darting out from a branch to nab a gnat or small flying insect. Meanwhile, a vireo is more deliberate, often walking along a small branch. They often search carefully on the underside of leaves looking for one of the many leaf-eating caterpillars (such as little green “inchworms”)

Vireos face the same threats as most of the warbler species. Many warblers and vireos, during their night time fall and spring migrations, crash into obstacles like communication towers and guy wires, ridge-top wind turbines, and tall city buildings. The other problem they face is the loss of favorable feeding habitats in the winter ranges. As I mentioned before, the deforestation of the rainforests in South and Central America has continued to take a dent out of all these bird populations.

Red-eyed vireos are also very common victims of the nest parasitic cowbirds. Their nests get “taken over” by a larger, very hungry cowbird nestling, which may be the only young that fledges. I have a theory that the constant singing of the male “red-eye” helps cowbirds more easily locate the vireo nests.

On one of your nature forays the next few weeks, get into a deciduous forest or woodlot and listen for the singing of the red-eyed vireo. And of course, just get out there and enjoy.

Test Your Outdoor Knowledge: Which of these is not a spider? A. Daddy long legs, B. water strider, C. orb weaver, D. all of these.

Last Week’s Trivia Answer: House wrens generally have two broods each summer.

Contact Barry Reed at breed71@gmail.com.

These red-eyed vireos were still migrating through Franklin Township in early September. Unlike many warblers, they retain most of their breeding plumage through fall. BARRY REED/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS
Yellow-throated vireos are one of the vireo species that nest in our region.
Warblers, like this yellow warbler found along Lizard Creek, are about ½ inch smaller than most vireos and have a thinner bill shape.
Note the red-eyed vireo's basically plain plumage, but the eyebrow helps identify it, too.