Clellie Lynch: Politicians, preacherbirds and rambling sopranos
EAST CHATHAM, N.Y. — While the trees are mere spooky silhouettes in the first glimmer of dawn light, a cardinal loudly calls, repeating that mechanical, sharp whistle, a wake-up for all the other dozing passerines. Soon the mid-summer choristers take center stage drowning out the whispy buzz of insects and the twang of green frogs. Near the house are chickadees and titmice, while a pair of robins duet to one another hidden high up in the treetops. From the woods comes the mewl of catbirds. A raven croaks as he glides over the hill.
"Three-eight three-eight, three-eight .three-eight," the yellow-throated vireo assures us he is alive and well. Soon the resident warbling vireo takes to a branch over the pond and bursts into song, a series of lovely sweet notes. Not to be outdone, the red-eyed vireo begins to sing — and sing and sing. By mid-day, only the tireless vireos are singing.
As a family (Vireonidae), these operatic avians are among the few birds that not only sing spring, summer and into the fall, they perform morning, noon and night. Sometimes at this time of the year, they'll be the only species singing on a hot, steamy afternoon.
TO BE GREEN
Vireos are New World birds, found primarily in the Americas. At first, when these birds were identified by colonists and other early ornithologists, they were categorized as flycatchers since they snag insects in much the same manner. Other early scientists looked to the plumage for naming these small birds and called them "greenlets." Then in 1808, in "Histoire naturelle des oiseaux de l'Am rique Septentrionale," Louis Vieillot (1786-1859), a French explorer who classified and categorized the flora and fauna of the newly explored Americas, chose the name vireo, from the Latin virere — to be green.
Although you might find Audubon prints of the white-eyed flycatcher or the warbling flycatcher, you can see that they are our everyday vireos. In the early literature too you might find references with the flycatcher or greenlet name. For example, in "Birds of Long Island" by J.P. Giraud (1844) all of the vireos are listed as greenlets — the red-eyed greenlet, the warbling greenlet, etc. Today use of the name "vireo" is universal.
Fifteen species of vireos populate the United States, only five of which breed here on the east coast: red-eyed, white-eyed, warbling, yellow-throated and blue-headed, (formerly solitary). Vireos tend to be slightly larger than warblers, and are primarily woodland or thicket birds. They build pendant nests of twigs and line these nests with softer materials.
The white-eyed vireo, the rarest nester of the five, was more common in the previous centuries and was known as the `politician" for it feathered its nests with whatever came in handy, expensive or cheap, and with whatever came to wing: fine grass, spider silk, bits of barks, shiny paper or strands of wool or cotton.
Our most prevalent vireo, the red-eyed, was known throughout the 19th century as the "preacherbird" for its relentless, singsong vocalizations, for "his elocutionary power and continuous discourse." In the literature, various professional and amateur ornithologists never fail to mention the constancy of its singing: "He pushes monotony to a much higher level." "He has something to say at all times and under all circumstances." "He is omnipresent, loquacious, indefatigable and irrepressible!" And lastly: "He has something to say — and one may absolutely rely upon his having the last word unless the matter is settled with a gun." And for this his relentless song is compared to a Sunday sermon!
In "The Field Book of Wild Birds and their Music" (1908), F. Schuyler Mathews transliterates bird song into actual musical statements and charts readable, and perhaps, singable if one has musical training or talent. Mathews is quick to point out: that warblers notes are weak, thin and high-pitched, while vireos are more robust, louder and lower-pitched and that warblers sing in presto time; vireos, in allegro time. Hmmm.
Mathews is very knowledgable about birds and certainly has listened and listened. He too sometimes uses mnemonics to remember a song or call. But I wonder about this interpretation of the red-eyed's constant refrain: "Tom Kelly whip Tom Kelly, Tom Kelly whip Tom Kelly"? Who was this poor man, Tom Kelly? Easier to hear is: "Fat worms plenty to eat gobble them up they're sweet." And the white-eyed's : "Who are you there? Go'way, Get out!" Tough talk from a tiny bird.
Warbling vireos were everywhere this spring including in the cottonwood over our pond. They were once considered fairly uncommon in Eastern New York and the Berkshires, but this year there were at least seven places on the road where I heard them consistently over a period of four or five weeks. Mathews dubs this avian the "rambling soprano." He claims that the call "does not resemble a song as much as a fantasia, caprice or the somewhat rapid movement of a sonata." Definitely the daytime diva!
On the other hand, the yellow-throated is, Mathews says, a contralto, completely dominated by "overtones" with a violin quality to his voice. Not exactly sure what this means. But I do agree with the second part: "to note the intervals of silence amid the continuous singing." Definitely a pause when you hear that loud and clear "Three-eight .three-eight."
While the blue-headed vireo's song according to Mathews "is not remarkable for pitch, precision of interval, or melody; indeed he is simply an expert in emphatic expression like the musical swishing of a whiplash, it is fraught with emphasis." Never thought cracking a whip was musical at all!
Eventually after years of listening, I've learned the songs using neither musical staffs nor terminology. If you are patient and wait and watch, you will eventually be able to see that singing vireo. Best though that you not only learn the song, but also learn the field marks as well: wing bars or no, eye line or spectacles, amount of greenish yellow. And definitely keep a bird app on your phone to play quietly in the woods to verify, if need be, what you are hearing!
Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.
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