Vireo atricapilla

Black-capped Vireo

FWS Focus

Overview

Characteristics
Overview

The black-capped vireo is a small, insect-eating migratory songbird that breeds and nests in Oklahoma, Texas and northern Mexico, and winters along Mexico’s western coastal states. They are habitat specialists on their breeding grounds, utilizing shrublands and open woodlands. The black-capped vireo was listed as an endangered species in 1987, largely due to habitat loss from browsing by goats and sheep and brood parasitism by brown-headed cowbirds. Due in part to conservation efforts, it was removed from the list of endangered and threatened wildlife in 2018 due to recovery.

Scientific Name

Vireo atricapilla
Common Name
black-capped vireo
FWS Category
Birds
Kingdom

Location in Taxonomic Tree

Genus

Identification Numbers

TSN:

Characteristics

Characteristic category

Habitat

Characteristics
Habitat

Black-capped vireo habitat varies by the seasonal needs of their winter, or non-breeding, and spring/summer, or breeding, ranges. On the wintering grounds of western Mexico, habitat is known to have a wide range of vegetation types described as arid scrub and a more diverse secondary growth and forest edge. Breeding and nesting habitat is generally described as shrublands and open woodlands. They use low scrubby growth, which is generally under 10 feet in height, of mostly deciduous shrubs and trees of irregular height and distribution. These habitats are characterized as having foliage cover to ground level, with spaces between shrub/tree mottes, or groups of woody plants. Woody shrub/tree mottes cover 35% or greater of the area, while 35 to 55% is preferred. The open spaces between mottes consists of bare ground, rock, grasses and forbs. In the eastern portion of the breeding range, habitat is often described as early successional or dependent on periodic disturbance from activities like wild or prescribed fire to maintain suitable conditions. In Mexico, breeding habitat is similar to that of the United States, but often lacks any open space between woody shrubs. 

Bailey, J.W. 2005. Hierarchical nest-site selection and the effects of habitat characteristics on black-capped vireo nest survival. M.S. Thesis, University of Missouri - Columbia, Columbia, Missouri.

Benson, R.H., and K.L.P. Benson. 1990. Estimated size of black-capped vireo population in northern Coahuila, Mexico. The Condor 92:777-779.

Campbell, L. 2003. Endangered and threatened animals of Texas: their life history and management. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Resource Protection Division, Endangered Resources Branch, Austin, Texas.

Farquhar, C.C. and J.I. González. 2005. Breeding habitat, distribution, and population status of the Black-capped Vireo in Northern Mexico.  Final Report, Section 6 Grant No. E-17. Wildlife Diversity Program, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Austin, Texas.

Graber, J.W. 1961. Distribution, habitat requirements, and life history of the black-capped vireo (Vireo atricapilla). Ecological Monographs 31:313-336.

Grzybowski, J.A. 1995. Black-capped vireo (Vireo atricapillus) in The Birds of North America, No. 181. A. Poole and F. Gill, editors. The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and The American Ornithologists’ Union, Washington, D.C.

Grzybowski, J.A., D.J. Tazik, and G.D. Schnell. 1994. Regional analysis of black-capped vireo breeding habitats. The Condor 96:512-544.

Howell, S.N.G. and S. Webb. 1995. A guide to the birds of Mexico and northern central America. Oxford University Press, New York, New York.

Marshall, J.T., Jr., R.B. Clapp, and J.A. Grzybowski. 1985. Status report: Vireo atricapillus Woodhouse, black-capped vireo. Unpublished report to Office of Endangered Species, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Albuquerque, NM.

Grassland

Land on which the natural dominant plant forms are grasses and forbs.

Forest

A dense growth of trees and underbrush covering a large tract.

Characteristic category

Food

Characteristics
Food

Adult and fledgling black-capped vireos forage for insects and spiders mostly by gleaning them from vegetation. While their diet is mostly arthropods, especially butterfly and moth larvae, they will also supplement with seeds and other plant matter. Nestlings are fed mostly small insect larvae by both adult parents.

Grzybowski, J.A. 1995. Black-capped vireo (Vireo atricapillus) in The Birds of North America, No. 181. A. Poole and F. Gill, editors. The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and The American Ornithologists’ Union, Washington, D.C.

Characteristic category

Physical Characteristics

Characteristics
Size & Shape

One of the smallest in the vireo family, the black-capped vireo measures 11 to 12 centimeters (4.3 inches to 4.7 inches) in length. 

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 1991. Black-capped Vireo Recovery Plan. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Region 2, Albuquerque, NM. 

Color & Pattern

Male and female black-capped vireo have slightly different coloration as adults. Males are olive-green on the back, mostly white below with flanks of faint greenish-yellow. The species gets its name from its mostly black head or cap and prominent white spectacles extending to its black bill. Mature female coloration is slightly duller than males, with the cap on the head a medium to dark gray.

Campbell, L. 2003. Endangered and threatened animals of Texas: their life history and management. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Resource Protection Division, Endangered Resources Branch, Austin, Texas.

Oberholser, H.C. 1974. The bird life of Texas Volume 2. University of Texas Press, Austin, Texas. 

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) 1991. Black-capped Vireo Recovery Plan. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Region 2, Albuquerque, NM.

Sound

Male black-capped vireos sing an extensive song made up of distinct phrases of 2 to 4 notes to defend territories. Females do not sing, but do vocalize through calls, as do males, to signal to their mate, as an alarm or to scold potential predators.

Grzybowski, J.A. 1995. Black-capped vireo (Vireo atricapillus) in The Birds of North America, No. 181. A. Poole and F. Gill, editors. The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and The American Ornithologists’ Union, Washington, D.C.

Weight

Adult black-capped vireos weigh 9 to 10 grams (0.32 tp 0.35 ounces).

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 1991. Black-capped Vireo Recovery Plan. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Region 2, Albuquerque, NM. 

Characteristic category

Behavior

Characteristics
Behavior

Male black-capped vireos sing daily during the entire breeding season, although the frequency diminishes in July and August. Singing establishes a territory boundary and attracts a female for courtship. Black-capped vireo territories are often in clusters or groupings within a habitat patch. Adults have a strong site fidelity between breeding seasons, often returning to the same territory or habitat patch each year. First year breeding adults, hatched from the previous breeding season, usually establish territories further from their hatch site.

Cimprich, D.A., C.W. Sexton, P.K. McDowell, G. Lasley, and W.S. Simper. 2009. Long-distance dispersal records for the black-capped vireo. Bulletin of the Texas Ornithological Society 42: 44-47.

Graber, J.W. 1961. Distribution, habitat requirements, and life history of the black-capped vireo (Vireo atricapilla). Ecological Monographs 31:313-336.

Grzybowski, J.A. 1995. Black-capped vireo (Vireo atricapillus) in The Birds of North America, No. 181. A. Poole and F. Gill, editors. The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and The American Ornithologists’ Union, Washington, D.C.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 1991. Black-capped Vireo Recovery Plan. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Region 2, Albuquerque, NM. 

Characteristic category

Lifecycle

Characteristics
Reproduction

Following a short courtship, black-capped vireos will begin constructing a nest within their habitat. The nest is usually constructed by both the adults in a shrub with leafy foliage extending to the ground, which helps to conceal the nest from predators. The female will lay three to four eggs, which both parents will incubate. Eggs hatch after 15 to 16 days, and chicks are born naked and blind. When 11 or 12 days old, young vireos begin to leave the nest, or fledge, with both adults tending and feeding them until they are independent. This usually takes between 35 to 45 days after fledging.

Campbell, L. 2003. Endangered and threatened animals of Texas: their life history and management. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Resource Protection Division, Endangered Resources Branch, Austin, Texas. 

Graber, J.W. 1961. Distribution, habitat requirements, and life history of the black-capped vireo (Vireo atricapilla). Ecological Monographs 31:313-336. 

Grzybowski, J.A. 1995. Black-capped vireo (Vireo atricapillus) in The Birds of North America, No. 181. A. Poole and F. Gill, editors. The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and The American Ornithologists’ Union, Washington, D.C. 

Pope, T.L., T.J. Conkling, K.N. Smith, M.R. Colón, M.L. Morrison, and R.N. Wilkins. 2013. Effects of adult behavior and nest-site characteristics on black-capped vireo nest survival. The Condor 115:1-8. 

Lifecycle

Black-capped vireos migrate from their wintering grounds in Mexico and arrive in Texas and Oklahoma from mid-March to mid-April. Males generally arrive one to two weeks before females and establish territories, ranging from 1 to 1.9 hectares (2.5 to 4.6 acres) in size, by singing along the boundaries. Males and females pair immediately upon arrival and select nest sites together. Although not common, adult female vireos may successfully rear two broods in a single season. Fall migration begins in July, but most occurs in August in September. The adults spend their winter in western Mexico, to return to the breeding grounds the following spring.

Lifespan

Black-capped vireos live several years, with most individuals living between two and three years. The longest documented lifespan of an individual is 12 years.

Cimprich, D.A., W.G. Strebe, and K.A. Comolli. 2010. Longevity of the black-capped vireo. Bull. Texas Ornith. Soc. 43: 41-44.

Graber, J.W. 1961. Distribution, habitat requirements, and life history of the black-capped vireo (Vireo atricapilla). Ecological Monographs 31:313-336.

Grzybowski, J.A. 1995. Black-capped vireo (Vireo atricapillus) in The Birds of North America, No. 181. A. Poole and F. Gill, editors. The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and The American Ornithologists’ Union, Washington, D.C.

Characteristic category

Similar Species

Characteristics
Similar Species

Geography

Characteristics
Range

The black-capped vireo’s breeding range extends from South Central Oklahoma through Texas, and south to the northern Mexican states of Coahuila, Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas. Historically, the breeding range was documented in southern Kansas, prior to 1953, although its prevalence in that state is not known. The winter range of the black-capped vireo occurs along Mexico’s western edge, from the foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidental to the coast, and extends from the states of Sonora to Oaxaca.

Graber, J.W. 1961. Distribution, habitat requirements, and life history of the black-capped vireo (Vireo atricapilla). Ecological Monographs 31:313-336.

Grzybowski, J.A. 1985. Population and nesting ecology of the black-capped vireo (Vireo atricapillus).  Part I: population status of the black-capped vireo in Oklahoma. Office of Endangered Species, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service  2018. Species Status Assessment for the Black-capped Vireo (Vireo atricapilla), Version 2.0. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Region 2, Albuquerque, NM. 

Vázquez-Miranda H., K.R. Barr, C.C. Farquhar, and R.M. Zink. 2015. Fluctuating fire regimes and their associated effects on genetic variation in an endangered shrubland specialist. Ecology and Evolution. Published by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. doi: 10.1002/ece3.1811.

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