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Vireos Found in the Thick of Leaves

Dear Bird Folks,

I just read that one of the most abundant birds in eastern North America is the Red-eyed Vireo. Well, you couldn’t prove that by me. I’ve lived in the East all of my life. I have two birdbaths, several feeders, and at least a dozen birdhouses and have never seen the bird that my bird book says is “abundant.” How can I attract this mythical bird? Am I doing something wrong or is my book incorrect?

– Eric, Rhinebeck, NY


Relax, Eric,

You aren’t doing anything wrong. Don’t be so paranoid. Not every bird is interested in our feeders, houses, etc. I wish every bird came and ate birdseed, but unfortunately they don’t. In fact, with the exception of a few dozen species, most birds have little use for our offerings. They take care of themselves just fine without our handouts. I think if they had their druthers most birds would rather that we go far away and not come back. I hate birds like this. There’s no money in them. They also make me use words like “druthers” and I don’t even know what that means.

Your book is correct; Red-eyed Vireos are extremely common birds. Not too long ago they were in the running for the most abundant species in the eastern half of North America. Although their numbers have dropped a bit recently, there are still plenty of them out there. Right now you are thinking: “Okay fine, there’s a lot of them. But where are they? Why am I not seeing them?” Vireos are one of those birds that only hard-core bird watchers seem to notice. Besides not coming to feeders, vireos are small and not very colorful, and spend most of their time at the tops of tall deciduous trees. In addition, they’re only in North America during the warmer months, when the aforementioned deciduous trees are totally leafed out. If you can spot a dull, tiny bird hiding high in the top of a leafed out tree, you are very good…and probably a liar.

Red-eye Vireos spend their winters in Amazonia, which is a cool way of saying the Amazon River basin. One reason why this bird’s population has dropped has to do with the fact that way too many acres of their wintering grounds have been slashed and burned so that stupid meat eaters can have stupid cattle farms. Also, much of this land has been turned into soybean farms so that stupid vegetarians can have their stupid tofu. (This poor bird gets it from the carnivores and the freaks.) By the end of March most of the vireos have had enough of the cattle and tofu farms and leave Amazonia for North America.

Arriving in mid-May the Red-eyed Vireos immediately begin doing two things that they are noted for. The first one has to do with their diet. If you happen to have even a slight case entomophobia (you know, scream like a crazy nutjob at the sight of an insect), you will love these birds. Vireos are bug hogs. They eat all kinds of icky things, including tent caterpillars, gypsy moths, ants, flies, mosquitoes, wasps, bees and walking sticks. (Walking sticks?) The other thing these vireos are famous for is singing. The male Red-eyed Vireo starts singing the moment he arrives in the spring and never stops. He sings to announce his territory. He sings to attract a mate. He probably even sings while mating (but I think we’ve all done that). He sings when his mate is building the nest and while she is sitting on the eggs. Meanwhile his poor mate has to endure this constant chatter. She simply sits on her eggs, appears to ignore his yappathon and perhaps dozes off. However, the instant he stops singing she immediately becomes alert. She knows that when the male Red-eyed Vireo finally shuts up it either means there is a predator approaching or he is about to serve her lunch, because he has just captured a juicy bug. Even vireos won’t talk with their mouth full, unlike many of us.

If you want to see a Red-eyed Vireo – and good luck to you if you do – the best time to find them is when they first arrive and the trees haven’t totally leafed out yet. Vireos are about the size of a titmouse, have a dull greenish-gray body, a gray cap on the head and a white line above the eye. As their name implies they do have red eyes, but these are small birds with small eyes, so don’t expect to see a giant pair of red eyes gleaming from the treetops to help you with identification. By far the best way to locate a vireo is to learn the male’s song because it sings a lot. (Have I mentioned that yet?) Learn the song and you will not only have a better chance of finding this bird, but you will soon realize just how common it is. Then you can point out vireos as you walk down the street. Talk about a way to impress your friends.

I wish there was an easy way for you to attract Red-eyed Vireos to your yard, Eric, but they only want our broad-leafed trees, caterpillars and walking sticks. Vireos are dull-colored, talkative and common, and they are definitely real birds. They are not, as you suggested, “mythical” birds. You must have them confused with Nautilus Ducks.