Background Music

All morning today, a warm, cloudy day with rain in the forecast, a Red-eyed Vireo has been singing outside the open windows of my office. “Here I am. Where are you? Over here. Up in the tree.” It sings very sweetly and constantly, several times a minute, making its way through the green leaves of the water oaks and sweet gums around the edge of the woods. Now and then, he pauses to utter a nasal “nyaah” that sounds like a mild complaint. The Red-eyed Vireo is one of the most common birds in eastern forests, but because its song is so continuous, and often sung from high in the canopy where the bird can’t be seen, it’s a little like background music that can easily go unnoticed.

Early this morning, I watched him singing and hunting for insects among the leaves of a small water oak, admiring his clean, elegant look – slender, with a greenish-gray back, white breast, a blue-gray crown and distinct white stripe over the eye – which is indeed red, but I wasn’t close enough to see that.

Although a Red-eyed Vireo’s song is sometimes called monotonous, I think it’s lovely, especially at this time of year, when it sounds fresh and clear. The voice is expressive, and sounds more like warbling to me than most warblers’ songs. The notes are often slightly varied, not quite the same every time it goes through the four phrases. The variations, the pauses in between, and the curious lilting quality of the notes all combine to make a gentle, pleasant song that ripples through the high green leaves at the tops of the trees, where it’s most often found – welcome background music to work by.

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