A Bestiary: Part Forty-one ~ Songbirds: Scarlet Tanager

Continuing on with the Cardinalidae family as life is bursting open here on our southeast facing New England hillside habitat. The rich red of the Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea) complements the fresh greens of spring when he returns via his flight across the Gulf of Mexico from South American wintering sites.

Complementary colors of red and green are striking with the dramatic strokes of black on the wings and tail of the adult male Scarlet Tanager. The images above were taken from far away and when blown up appear more like paintings. It is hard to get close to the shy and secretive Scarlet Tanager.

My first sightings here were in 2009 and the last in 2012. Either the tanager has become more adept at hiding high in the forest canopy, where he tends to be, or, he is absent all together, though, amazingly I think I am hearing his edgy and hoarse robin-like song coming up from the forest edge as I write. It truly is one the songs of a Scarlet Tanager. I have not heard it all spring until now. How remarkable is that. It seems to be a male’s song. He will sing back and forth with his mate while they forage.

Caught in the act of an early morning preening a few years back . . . then the observer is caught but surprisingly, the tanager did not fly away immediately. Birds loved to perch at the top of this dying crabapple tree before I had to take it down.

The Scarlet Tanagers along with the Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Cardinals, Indigo Buntings, among others not mentioned in this Bestiary, belong to the Cardinalidae family and share large conical-shaped beaks. Their hefty bills are handy for opening a variety of grains which they add to their main diet of insects and berries.

During breeding season the males of these birds are brilliant in colors compared to their female consorts who wear yellow-green over most of their bodies with olive-green wings. In the winter the males change colors wearing more dull green. Since they are not needing to impress females it seems a more practical arrangement of colors making the males less conspicuous and less likely to become a target for birds of prey and collectors. Nature is so clever in how she protects her creatures.

Scarlet Tanagers are monogamous for the breeding season but may choose different mates the following year. Females do not fuss much in the creating of their nests. They will choose a shady spot high in an older oak, maple, beech or sometimes an evergreen hemlock will do. She will give her attention to her nest for about four days spending a little time each day. Unfortunately, these birds like many others fall prey to cowbirds parasitic ways. The tanagers cannot tell when a cowbird egg has joined their own light blue to blue-green eggs with lilac and brown specks. They will raise the cowbird’s offspring along with their own.

A greater threat to these gorgeous birds is the fragmentation of forests which may also make the birds more susceptible to cowbird predation. Scarlet Tanagers prefer mature forest habitat to breed and seek the same when migrating and overwintering.

Right now, I hear the tanager singing closer to the house and I am going to try to find it.

I just sat back down to write after getting a photo of the male Scarlet Tanager perching at the top of a black cherry across from where I sit. What a happy coincidence to be writing about a bird, especially one I had not heard or seen in years, and then to hear and see the bird. What luck, what joy.

Here he is

Scarlet Tanager

He is still singing. I am happy for his song and this image no matter he was too far away for me to get a good shot. It is clearly the Scarlet Tanager and I am delighted to know he and his mate are here. This experience illustrates how important it is to learn bird songs. I would not have known the tanagers were here if I had not listened and remembered the song. My Merlin app is essential too. I am constantly recording songs and then going to my app to identify the songs I cannot recognize. I love being able to put a name to a song.

© 2015, Carol Duke. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. JT says

    What a stunning bird! I checked out the Merlin app, but reviews for Android aren’t great. How exactly do you match up bird songs? I want to be able to ID songs rather than visual ID.

    • Carol Duke says

      I have the Merlin app on my iphone and love it. I simply record songs I hear when out in the field on my iphone via my video player and then play songs of birds I think the song matches until I find the match on Merlin. I do not know of another way. I like having both the visual and audio verification.
      Carol Duke recently posted..Yellow Warbler Sings in the Rain

  2. Loret says

    very very jealous here, Carol! They say this bird in in my range while it migrates from the north to s.America but I have yet to encounter any and I’ve been here 10+ years

    Once again thanks to you I can live vicariously through the eye of your camera and your poetic prose.

    Always love your articles!
    Loret recently posted..Speckled Sharpshooter (Paraulacizes irrorata)

    • Carol Duke says

      Thank you Loret! I hope you can see a Scarlet in your garden soon . . . when they migrate back through. I would try to learn their song and perhaps you may hear one before seeing one.
      Carol Duke recently posted..Yellow Warbler Sings in the Rain


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