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Column: Catching songs of the red-eyed vireo in the Shuswap

Nature Watch by John G. Woods
A rare eye-to-eye look at an adult male red-eyed vireo at the wharf. (Roger Beardmore photo)

By John G. Woods

Special to the Observer

While every bird song is an opportunity to connect with the natural world, a few species hold special places in my heart.

The first, robins, wake me up an hour and half before sunrise in March.

They stir me to get up and sip coffee while treating me to an early morning chorus.

Robins deliver a dawn performance with an intensity not matched at any other time of day.

In June, the delicate lisps of the Pacific-slope flycatchers singing from all-corners of town encourage me to drive with windows down as I listen for them at each stop sign.

And as I start to mourn the impending end of spring, the steadfast melodies of red-eyed vireos chant through the hot days of July, buoying my spirits towards autumn.

Although red-eyed vireos are one of the most abundant songbirds in North America, few people other than birdwatchers know them.

They are little birds weighing only about 20 grams and with a penchant for foraging in thick, hard-to-see-into deciduous trees.

While seeing them is difficult, male red-eyed vireos are conspicuous when they sing, which is much of the time! During their nesting season, these vireos fill our woodlands with a steady stream of songs from dawn to dusk.

They start territorial singing as soon as they arrive back from the tropics and continue to sing through to the end of July.

Red-eyed vireos held a special fascination for Louise de Kiriline Lawrence, a famous Canadian naturalist-writer who lived in a log cabin in northern Ontario many years ago.

Enchanted by their daily marathons of song, Louise counted the number of songs a single male red-eye sang from dawn-to-dusk on May 27, 1952. With help from a bird-watching friend, Louise documented this red-eye sing 22,197 times that day!

To my knowledge, this record has never been broken – by either a bird or a bird-watcher! Trying to describe bird songs in English is difficult. The authors of the red-eyed vireo monograph in “Birds of the World Online” try with the phrases “cherr-o-wit, cheree, sissy-a-wit, tee-oo.”

Another ornithologist coined the words “Listen now, do you hear me, believe me, that’s right…”

At least these phrases conjure up a sense of cadence and may serve as a memory aid once you have heard the voice of a real red-eye.

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My advice is to search for red-eyed vireos on the eBird website ( and play some of the recordings you will find there.

Red-eyes are famous for singing on, and on, and on, at a rate of up to 85 songs per minute.

We start hearing red-eyed vireos in the Shuswap during the last days of May and most of them have left us by mid-September.

Why do they arrive so late, weeks after some of the other species of vireo and most of the warblers? Perhaps it is because they have so far to travel from their wintering grounds in the Amazon basin.

A red-eye vireo nesting in Pennsylvania and wintering in the Amazon was documented to make the 6,600 kilometre northward journey in 46 days.

It migrated at night during 13 of those days and spent the other 33 days resting and feeding between migratory hops.

Red-eyed vireos homeward bound to the Shuswap need to travel a minimum of 7,000 kilometres between late March and late May.

Amazingly, the vireos you hear on the Foreshore Trail this summer will have travelled more than 14,000 km by the time they return to sing and raise a family next year.