Red-eyed vireo take part in migratory parade


Photo by Hans Toom/Pixabay • Red eyes, readily apparent with a good look through binoculars, have provided the inspiration for the common name of the red-eyed vireo, a summer resident in Northeast Tennessee, Southwest Virginia and Western North Carolina.

The signs of migration are everywhere. Warblers and company have been active the past couple of days. On Labor Day, Sept. 5, I was treated to a visit by three young common yellowthroats (two females and a male) in jewelweed and shrubs just by the front porch. One little female was extremely curious, coming as close to me and the porch as she dared. 

A male common yellowthroat sang almost daily from late May to late August, leading me to speculate these three young birds were some of his offspring. In quick order, I also observed a black-and-white warbler, a couple of young chestnut-sided warblers, a couple of gray catbirds and an Empidomax flycatcher that, if pressed, I’d guess was an Acadian. 

The next morning, despite a steady rain, warblers started the show again, including more chestnut-sided warblers, a Northern parula and a Tennessee warbler. I also watched a red-eyed vireo dueling with an Eastern wood-pewee until they both earned the ire of a ruby-throated hummingbird that chased after both of them with determined zeal.

A session of lawn chair birding in the back yard found me grateful for quality if not quantity on Thursday, Sept. 8. A delightful highlight was a beautiful male black-throated blue warbler that provided great looks in my binoculars. I also saw a Tennessee warbler, Carolina chickadees, gray catbird, ruby-throated hummingbird and downy woodpecker.

On Sept. 9, a morning walk before walk on the linear trail in Erwin yielded observations of a black-throated green warbler, gray catbird, downy woodpecker, red-bellied woodpecker and belted kingfisher. 

Providing background noise on most of my recent birding forays have been red-eyed vireos with their strident, scolding calls punctuating the background of chip notes, songs and calls from many other birds.

Photo by Jean Potter • The Blue-headed Vireo prefers wooded habitats at higher elevations.

At a glance, vireos would appear related to the wood warblers. Research into DNA, however, has led many experts to contend that vireos are more closely related to crows and shrikes. Like the flycatcher and hummingbird families, the vireo family is exclusive to the New World. With a mere 50 species, vireos and their kin are vastly outnumbered by flycatchers and hummingbirds. The majority of vireos resides in the tropics, but about a dozen species nest in the United States.

In East Tennessee Southwest Virginia and Western North Carolina, vireos resident during the summer months include red-eyed vireo, white-eyed vireo, blue-headed vireo, yellow-throated vireo and warbling vireo. Most people are likely unaware of vireos. Although not uncommon, these birds are more frequently heard than seen. They spend much of their time in the forest canopy or in dense brush. When singing, they can remain at a perch, unmoving, for long periods of time.

The loud scolding calls of red-eyed vireos often heard this time of year are given apparently when the vireo is alarmed or irritated, such as when a vireo is chased or challenged by an uppity hummingbird. This scolding vocalization is quite unlike the usual ones produced by this bird. First and foremost, the call is louder than one would think could be produced by a bird that is only about six inches long. During the summer season, the red-eyed vireo is also one of the most persistent of singing songbirds. Another common name for the red-eyed vireo is “preacher bird,” so called because of its tendency to unceasingly deliver its song.

The red-eyed vireo is still considered one of eastern North America’s most common summer breeding birds. At one time, the red-eyed vireo was probably the most common breeding bird in eastern woodlands. That, sadly, is no longer the case. Red-eyed vireos are olive-green above and clean white below. These birds show a distinctive head pattern consisting of a gray crown and white eyebrow stripe bordered above and below by black lines. Adults also have the red eyes that give this particular vireo its common name. The term “vireo,” originating in Latin, can be translated into English as “green bird.” It’s an apt description, as many of these small birds are primarily dull green in coloration. Consider the vireos the “Plain Janes” of songbirds.

Other vireos that can be found in the United States, for at least part of the year, include Philadelphia vireo, plumbeous vireo and Cassin’s vireo. A specialty of Florida is the black-whiskered vireo, while the black-capped vireo is an endangered species found in Texas. Two others, Bell’s vireo and gray vireo, are identified as species of concern on the Audubon Watchlist.

Many species of vireo are also found in the islands of the Caribbean, including Jamaican vireo, Cuban vireo and Puerto Rican Vireo. The thick-billed vireo, which is very similar to the white-eyed vireo, is a native of the Bahamas. 

Some of the more colorful common names for vireos include the dwarf vireo, golden vireo and yellow-winged vireo.  In Central and South America, the vireo family expands to include many birds with common names such as shrike-vireo, greenlet and peppershrike. Some of the varied species include lemon-chested greenlet, green shrike-vireo and the black-bellied peppershrike.


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