For the Birds: Hutton’s Vireo—It’s in the Bill

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Hutton's Vireo taken in Everett by Steve Mlodinow
By Christine Southwick

Recently, while enjoying my gorgeous blooming cherry tree, I spied a small yellowish olive-gray bird flitting among the blossoms, gleaning insects. What could it be I wondered?

It had to be either a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, or a Hutton’s Vireo, by size, coloring, and movement. This active little bird will travel in winter groups of foraging Bushtits, Ruby-crowned Kinglets and chickadees, so both are possible, and look very similar. Right now, both are generally quiet, so I couldn’t use their distinctly different songs.

Hutton’s Vireos are about five inches long; Ruby-crowned Kinglets are only four and a quarter long. The size of a solitary moving bird is hard to judge, especially since these two are smaller than Black-capped Chickadees.

Juvenile Hutton's Vireo, Taken in Lake Forest Park
Photo by Craig Kerns
Hutton’s Vireos flick their wings like Ruby-crowned Kinglets, but are slightly less active. The Hutton’s Vireo has blue-gray feet, while the Ruby-crowned Kinglet has yellow, but if you have ever tried to take a picture of either, you know how hard that can be, let alone see their feet.

Hutton’s Vireos are notorious for staying in the upper tree branches, and usually in the summer the only reason you notice them is their repeated 'zwee-zwee-zwee' song. A bird bath is the best way to get a good look at this bird.

For me, the key to identifying a Hutton’s Vireo is its bill. It is thicker than a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and it has a tiny hook on the end. Once I see that hook, I just use the foot color for confirmation.

Hutton's Vireo taken by Randy Bjorklund
Hutton’s Vireo is the only resident vireo in Washington. It’s not that common a bird. It avoids clear-cuts, but thrives in open mixed woods and forests, and has a fondness for oaks. Its nest is a cup that hangs in a tree fork, rather than resting on a branch. The three-to-five eggs are incubated by both the female and the male, a habit unusual in passerines.

If you see a small yellowish to olive-gray bird flicking its wings while searching in the foliage for tasty insects and spiders, try to get a good look at its bill. If you see a thick short bill with a hook at the end, you have a Hutton’s Vireo.

If you can’t tell, you may want to invest in a shallow bird bath, where vireos become still enough to get good looks at their bills and feet.

Christine Southwick is on the Board of the Puget Sound Bird Observatory and is their Winter Urban Color-banding Project Manager. She is a National Wildlife Federation Certified Wildlife Habitat Steward, having completed their forty hour class. We're happy that she is sharing her expertise with us about the birds in our backyards.

For previous For the Birds columns, click on the link under the Features section on the main webpage.


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