Tuesday Tunes

photograph and text by Brian Willson

What does a Red-Eyed Vireo sound like?

You might not notice, but any time you walk through a mixed woodland these days you’re liable to hear the song of a red-eyed vireo. Probably more than one red-eyed vireo, in fact. They’re arguably our most common summer-calling forest bird.

Like Maine’s celebrated black-capped chickadee, vireos get their names from the sounds they make. Several species nest around here or pass through during migration, including the blue-headed vireo, warbling vireo, and Philadelphia vireo. Most deliver a series of clipped, brief phrases that include some form of the sound “vireo!” The phrases of the red-eyed are especially quick and incessant. They call over and over and over again, thousands — if not tens of thousands — of little two- to four-note phrases during the course of a single day.

Vireos tend to stay high in the canopy, hidden among foliage, so it’s not easy to get a look at one. But if you do, chances are you’ll see a caterpillar in its beak. And if you’re lucky (or unlucky, depending on your nature), you’ll see it pound the caterpillar repeatedly against a branch, bashing its brains in before devouring it.

Blue-headed vireos are earlier to arrive in spring and have a somewhat more leisurely call. Warbling vireos, well, warble. The rest, too, have their own distinctive vocal patterns. But if you step onto a wooded trail at this time of year, cock your head, and listen high in the trees, you won’t be able to miss the red-eyed vireo’s manic, ceaseless music.