Singing in the Weeds

In the weed-choked thickets of the old field that runs along the dead-end road just outside our neighborhood, there’s a singer that’s rarely seen, but it’s one of the most characteristic members of the field’s wildlife community. A White-eyed Vireo has been singing almost every day since the first one arrived in early spring. On some days during the summer it was the only song I heard in the field – so much a part of the scene that it might have gone unnoticed – and there are still one or two singing now, after the Blue Grosbeaks and Indigo Buntings have left, and even the Cardinals, Mockingbirds, and Brown Thrashers are mostly quiet.

Like many birds, the White-eyed Vireo’s song reflects its habitat – dry and sharp-edged, but with a musical tune winding like a flowering vine through the crisp percussive notes – chik-aperioo-chik! To me, it sounds similar to the wildflowers that bloom in the field, like the blue and purple morning glories twisting among the woody and grassy weeds in the ditch along the roadside, just below the thickets of privet, blackberry and honeysuckle where the Vireo and other weed-loving birds take cover.

Although it sings most of the time from deep in the shrubs, a White-eyed Vireo also often comes out into the low, open branches of bushes or small trees. It’s not particularly shy, and well worth a little patience to find. It’s a small, grayish bird, with a white throat, a yellow wash under each wing, white wing bars, and bright yellow markings around the eyes that look like “spectacles.” The white iris of its eye is unique and rather startling, though it can be hard to see in the tricky light among lots of leaves and shadows.

White-eyed Vireos are common birds in overgrown pastures, abandoned fields and second-growth woody areas in this part of the South. But as the species account in Birds of North America notes, “A principal restriction on the White-eyed Vireo appears to be the availability of suitable habitat. Since the dense scrub this species prefers has little economic value, it is rarely protected.”*

As more and more second-growth woods and old fields disappear in the path of suburban development, this kind of habitat needed by White-eyed Vireos and other birds like Field Sparrows, Indigo Buntings, Blue Grosbeaks, Prairie Warblers and Yellow-breasted Chats is shrinking, and unless we do something to protect places like these, it seems inevitable that before too long we’ll have to go to “special places” to see many of these bird species we now think of as common.

*Hopp, S. L., A. Kirby, and C. A. Boone. 1995. White-eyed Vireo (Vireo griseus). In The Birds of North America, No. 168 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, and The American Ornithologists’ Union, Washington, D.C.

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