The Vireo Challenge
Story by Bryan Pfeiffer
BIRDS in focus
Some weighty and persistent questions in the North Woods:
Black spruce or red spruce? Green frog or mink frog? Red-eyed
vireo or blue-headed vireo?
Not that the two vireos look alike. What makes them difficult
is that they sound alike, and we often hear vireos before we see
them. Taking on the challenge of telling these two vireos’ songs
apart will not only help you learn more about these species,
it will also provide a lesson in how to analyze and recognize
confusing vocalizations among birds in general.
First, a review of the basics. Begin by learning the songs of
common species, which can serve as points of reference. A scarlet
tanager sounds like an American robin with a sore throat, for
example, and a rose-breasted grosbeak sounds like a highly
caffeinated American robin with a richer voice.
Using catchy mnemonic phrases can also help – whether they
come from your field guide or your own brain. A black-throated
green warbler sings a buzzy, memorable zee zee zah zoo ZEET!
But one birder I know prefers, I’ll have mine on WHEAT! She
even makes the vague connection from wheat to moldy bread
to the green on the warbler. Hey, like I say, whatever works. (By
the way, if those sonograms – basically oscilloscope displays of
bird vocalizations – work for you, more power to ya’. My brain
doesn’t like them.)
David Sibley described the song of another vireo – the
warbling vireo – as a rapid, run-on, husky viderveedeevider
veedeeviderVEET. If that seems like a mess or otherwise doesn’t
work for you, try saying this (as fast as you can):
if-I-could-see-you-I-would-seize-you,-and-I-would-squeeze-you-’til-you-SQUIRT! Does a warbling vireo say anything resembling those
words? Nope. But it works for many birders, mostly because
the duration of the phrase and its energy and cadence match a
warbling vireo’s performance.
Which brings us back to our teachable moment with blue-headed and red-eyed vireos. Again, a good point of reference is
the American robin, which sings rich, repeated two- or three-syllable phrases: churry-up churry-oh, cheer-up cheery-oh. The
vireos sing similar, sweet, slower versions of this; they sort of say
their name and offer a running commentary on your bird-finding
skills: veerio, here-I-am, look-way-up, in-the-tree, see-me? No,
So first, get a general sense of the vireo’s song – the essentials
of its phrases and sweetness. (You’ll be able to practice after you’re
done reading.) Next comes the skill-building: discern subtle
differences in voice, pace, and phrases. Yes, these distinctions
can be hard to learn. But the payoff is more than wisdom in the
woods; I find the journey – slowing down, losing for a moment
the wonderful mess of diversity in our woods, adopting a singular
focus – worthy of almost any walk outside. With time, you’ll
notice the differences I point out here in the table.
Now that you’re ready to go outside and practice, here’s a way
to cheat. In June and July, the red-eyed vireo can be a reference
bird. Widespread in hardwoods, they sing – often nonstop
– throughout the nesting season. If you’re in hardwoods (and
sometimes mixed woods), even in suburbia, you are not far
from a red-eyed vireo. Blue-headed vireos prefer nesting in
Oh, by the way, if you would like an even more demanding
vireo challenge, consider the Philadelphia vireo. (No, being from
Philly won’t help you recognize its accent.) Philly vireos breed in
early- to mid-successional deciduous woods and edge habitats
across boreal Canada and parts of northern New England and
New York. They sound very much like red-eyed vireos, but
slower and weaker. The similarities are so strong that I confuse
them with red-eyes about half the time. Which is fine –
birds are a journey in lifelong learning.
Bryan Pfeiffer is an author, wildlife photographer, guide, and consulting naturalist who
specializes in birds and insects. He lives in Montpelier, Vermont.
RED-EYED VIREO (above) BLUE-HEADED VIREO (below)
Voice Robin-like, Slightly thinner and weaker than
rich and fruity. red-eyed vireo, somewhat forced
from the “back of the throat.”
Pace and Steady and energetic, Slower, more reticent;
Duration sometimes incessant the blue-headed often stops singing
(for hours). (even in the morning).
Phrases Usually three syllables. Includes more two-syllable phrases,