Recently while birding in the South Llano River State Park near Junction, I crossed paths with one of the Hill Country’s smallest and most illusive birds, a Verdin. Seeing movement in the brushy habitat might be the only way to notice the bird’s presence because of their very tiny size and lack of significant plumage that might catch your eye. Verdins are barely larger than our hummingbirds and are even smaller than some hummingbirds in West Texas.
If you are going to find the Verdin in the Hill Country, you must visit the driest scrub vegetation you can find – mainly west of Kerr County. Their numbers increase going westward into the more arid Western Edwards Plateau vegetation region. Mesquites, thorn scrub, and prickly pear would be the indicator plants for the habitat occupied by Verdins. Scattered areas of thorn brush occur throughout the region, but the prime areas are to the south and west.
Wren-sized or smaller, Verdins are mostly gray to brown in color, but have one distinctive attribute – a yellow face. I can best describe the bird’s appearance as looking as if it had been dipped face-first into a can of yellow paint. The only other color, chestnut or rufous brown, is found on the bird’s shoulder. The upper part of its body, including its tail, is darker than the lower part. The bird has a very thin small bill. Without binoculars, a birder would find it visually hard to see any of these characteristics.
Young Verdins might be confused with Common Bushtits since they both have little color other than gray and brown. Generally these birds do not occupy the same habitat, so confusion between the two is unlikely. Verdins are similar to chickadees and titmice in that they perform acrobatic abilities as they forage for food. Hanging upside down is a common feeding position.
The Verdin is one of the few birds that utilizes its nest as a roosting venue, similarly to the Cactus Wren, both occupants of the desert habitat. The birds’ nests are similar in shape; both have a football shape tucked into a mesquite limb or cactus plant. These bulky looking nest-roosts are made of grass with the opening located on one end. Cactus Wren nests are larger and more likely found in cholla (a spindly cactus) or a very thorny scrub and closer to the ground than are Verdin nests.
Verdins are good engineers and planners. They build their football nest-roosts in the winter with the openings pointed away from the cold wind direction; however, their summer nest-roost entries are directed towards the prevailing wind. This opening position allows the breezes to help cool the occupants – parents and young. The birds also make sure their winter roosting homes are better insulated to keep out the cold winds.
Since their spritely size usually makes it difficult to know they are in the area, it is very important to recognize their call and song. Dr. Kent Rylander in his book, The Behavior of Texas Birds, described the bird’s voice as a loud penetrating “tswee-tswee-tswee-tsweet,” or a rapid “tzit-tzit-tzit.” It is very difficult to describe any bird’s song in words; therefore, it is important to imprint the song in your mind as you observe the bird. This technique is useful in learning all bird songs and calls.
One additional interesting point about Verdins is that they are desert inhabitants and get most of their water needs from insects, berries, fruit and nectar. They tend to feed during the cooler times of the day, thereby controlling their exposure to the sun and water loss. It is not unusual to find Virdens in dry brushy habitat far from any water sources.
On your next visit to a mesquite or thorn scrub habitat be mindful that Verdins are likely in the area. They may be small, but they are subtly beautiful birds – tiny waifs with distinctive yellow faces.
P.S. I think our rain dances last week worked well.