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Olive-green Green Bird

May 20, 2010
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Vireo olivaceus, if the Latin is translated literally, refers either to a bird that is so green that said greenness needs to repeatedly emphasized, or a phenomenal lack of creativity on Linneaus’ part when he received his first specimen from the new world.  Vireo is derived from the word virescere, to become green, which is a fairly appropriate name for a family of largely verdant birds.  But the father of taxonomy didn’t just stop there.  Instead of focusing on the ruby-red eye he turns instead to the delicate shading on the neck and back, bestowing olivaceus, olive-green, on the bird for whom so many birders associate a menacing scarlet orb and a incessant song.

I suppose Linneaus can be somewhat forgiven.  The first Red-eyed Vireo to pass though his lab was probably a skin, one of many in a single shipment from America, likely without eyes of any sort and certainly long past the days of filling a treetop with where-are-you… here-I-am… there-you-are.  I imagine him sitting alone late at night at his desk (in full wigged regalia, of course), resignedly opening the next box from the New World, slapping the nondescript Vireo on his desk and thinking, “Christ, another green one?”   He had no idea that the olive-greenery is perhaps the least interesting thing about a Red-eyed Vireo, a bird for whom limiting song to mating season is merely a suggestion and a scorching mid-summer afternoon is the perfect venue for a virtuosic performance.

I’ve been to Mason Farm each of the last three weekends to find a particularly avid singer on territory in a grove of Black Willows.  Each time I’ve tried to take some photos with no real luck.  I have backlit photos, blurry photos, branch covered photos, you name it.  But on an otherwise slow day seeing nothing of note, I round the corner to find the local Vireo out in the open, singing vehemently into the wind, devil may care, like a crazy person on a street corner yelling at the passing traffic.

He was scarcely interested in me as I rounded the tree to the far side to get a slightly better angle on him, stopping only briefly to give me the once over before apparently deciding that everything was cool to start up again with a florid torrent of three note phrases.

After three weeks I feel like I know this individual bird in a way that’s hard for the largely transient neotropic migrants.  granted Red-eyes nest around here, and sing throughout the summer such that they’re often the only remaining birdsong on any given July afternoon, but too often they’re simply noted from the treetops in passing and I admit I don’t often take the time to track one down the labyrinth of an oak-hickory canopy.  Turns out in that context, the Olive-green Green is completely appropriate.

But perhaps this bird, who seems to have decided to make his stand closer to the ground, will be a regular  acquaintance this year.

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2 Comments
  1. Joseph Covington permalink
    May 20, 2010 9:27 am

    Nathan,
    This is interesting–insights on an almost too-familiar bird–from the naming process. Not only that, you really do write and envision imagery very well.

  2. May 20, 2010 11:07 am

    I’ve become rather familiar with a Northern Parula who sings right at the fork in the trail. He’s given me amazing views each time I’ve been there over the last couple weeks.

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