For the Birds Radio Program: Yellow-throated Vireo

Original Air Date: June 2, 2008 Rerun Dates: May 20, 2016; May 24, 2012; May 28, 2010; June 12, 2009

One fairly obscure little bird made a big impression during Laura’s daily walks.

Duration: 4′19″


Yellow-throated Vireo

There seem to be three tiers of birds—the common ones that virtually everyone, even if they’ve never seen it in the wild, have heard of, such as loons, geese, eagles, hummingbirds, crows, mockingbirds, and cardinals. I know two people who named their daughters Phoebe who only vaguely knew that the name comes from a bird, but I can’t imagine anyone who doesn’t realize that Robin and Jay are bird as well as people names.

The second tier is birds that even novice birders discover quickly. The name might be peculiar, like the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker; the bird may stand out in a field guide for beauty or funkiness, like the Pileated Woodpecker; or the song may arrest attention, like the Veery or White-throated Sparrows. In any case, this includes birds we usually notice.

The third tier includes birds that don’t stand out in the field guide or in the field—birds you have to search for to see at all. Unless you recognize the song in the first place, you never realize they’re around, and they don’t seem all that significant even after you have seen one. These are birds that after you’ve added to your lifelist, you don’t bother to look for very often. This list includes some pretty wonderful birds, but ones that just don’t ignite people’s interest the way a big honkin’ Pileated Woodpecker does. One of the ones fitting in this category that I’ve been enjoying lately is the Yellow-throated Vireo.

This inconspicuous bird hangs out in the foliage of large deciduous trees near rivers and streams, both on its breeding and wintering grounds. The breeding range includes much of the eastern US but barely makes it into Canada or northeastern Minnesota—the best place to see them in the Duluth area is along the St. Louis River.

I hardly ever see a Yellow-throated Vireo without hearing it first. It has a very short song—a raspy phrase of three or four syllables, sung over and over throughout the day. If the Red-eyed Vireo sounds like a robin with a stutter, the Yellow-throated Vireo sounds like a Scarlet Tanager with a stutter, or a red-eyed vireo with a sore throat.

These little birds reach their northern breeding grounds in late April or early May, and quickly commence nesting. Like many vireos, both parents incubate the eggs during the day. Usually the attending parent flies off instantly as the other parent reaches the nest, so to a casual observer or a predator, it seems as though just one bird is flying through. I’ve seen a male Warbling Vireo singing from the nest while incubating—this would be trickier to observe in the Yellow-throated Vireo, whose nest is farther up near the canopy. According to the literature, they’re usually quiet on the nest unless the female has been gone a long time. Then the male probably sings out of impatience.

I’ve been thinking about Yellow-throated Vireos a lot lately, because a pair is nesting down my road a short way from my Ithaca apartment. For weeks, the male has been singing just about every time I walked Photon, until on Saturday I found him killed by a car. At this point, his mate almost definitely has eggs or young nestlings, and I don’t know if she’ll raise them on her own. By Sunday, to my great relief, another male was singing there. A half-ounce bird isn’t very resilient against a 2- or 3- ton car or truck, but overall nature is, as long as we don’t take her for granted.