Red-eyed Vireo

Vireo olivaceus

  • Version: 1.1 — Published November 29, 2018
  • David A. Cimprich, Frank R. Moore, and Michael P. Guilfoyle

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Figure 1. Distribution of the Red-eyed Vireo in North and Central America.

This species summers locally west of the distribution shown, and winters in South America. See text for details.

Red-eyed Vireo.

Large vireo with a gray to blue-gray crown that contrasts with plain, grayish olive-green upperparts and rather prominent whitish supercilium. Lateral edges of crown bordering supercilium above form sharp blackish line; dusky eyeline extends from lores to behind eye, where it gradually becomes less distinct. Underparts white, tinged pale yellow when fresh. Iris bright red to crimson, rarely brownish red. The brown primary coverts, the narrow pointed rectrices, and the lack of contrast between the tertials and the secondaries indicate that this is a bird in Formative Plumage. Eye color also still is not quite fully red.

© Marc Brawer, New York, United States, 20 April 2018

One of the most common breeding songbirds in the woodlands of eastern North America, the Red-eyed Vireo is more often heard than seen. This species' persistent song is heard throughout the day: cherr-o-wit, cheree, sissy-a-wit, tee-oo. Indeed, the unending and monotonous character of its song prompted Bradford Torrey in 1889 to reflect wryly, “I have always thought that whoever dubbed this vireo the ‘preacher' could have had no very exalted opinion of the clergy” (1: 343).

As with many Nearctic–Neotropical migrants, the evolutionary origin of the Red-eyed Vireo can likely be traced to the Neotropics (2). This species overwinters principally in the Amazon basin of South America east of the Andes and breeds extensively in eastern North America and west across Canada and the northern United States. The sexes are weakly dimorphic and socially monogamous. The female builds the nest, incubates eggs, and devotes more time than the male to brooding and feeding of young. This species is largely insectivorous during the breeding season, when they are most often observed foraging in canopy vegetation. During the nonbreeding season, fruit is an important part of the diet, especially in migration and tropical overwintering habitats. A mixed diet of fruit and insects is especially conducive to fat deposition during migration. The Red-eyed Vireo is a nocturnal migrant whose magnetic compass figures prominently in its orientation during intercontinental flight (R. Sandberg, J. Bäckman, M. Lohmus, personal communication).

The Red-eyed Vireo is part of the subgenus Vireosylva and the larger Vireo olivaceus superspecies complex, which includes Yellow-green Vireo (V. flavoviridis) of Middle America, Black-whiskered Vireo (V. altiloquus) of southern Florida and the West Indies, Yucatan Vireo (V. magister) of Yucatan Peninsula and nearby islands, Chivi Vireo (V. chivi) of tropical lowland South America, and Noronha Vireo (V. gracilirostris) of Fernando de Noronha, Brazil. Evolutionary relationships within this complex have challenged taxonomists for decades. For example, V. flavoviridis and V. altiloquus were lumped into V. olivaceus for many years, but eventually were generally treated as species. Despite those splits, V. chivi continued to be lumped with V. olivaceus until phylogenetic analyses revealed paraphyly between the North American and South American lineages of V. olivaceus with respect to V. altiloquus (3, 4), leading to the recent taxonomic split of V. olivaceus and V. chivi (5).

Important information is available on communication (6, 7, 8), breeding biology (9, 10, 7), foraging behavior (11, 12), and migration (13, 14).

Recommended Citation

Cimprich, D. A., F. R. Moore, and M. P. Guilfoyle (2018). Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus), version 1.1. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.