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Help develop a Bird ID tool!

Summer Tanager

Piranga rubra ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: CARDINALIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

The only completely red bird in North America, the strawberry-colored male Summer Tanager is an eye-catching sight against the green leaves of the forest canopy. The mustard-yellow female is harder to spot, though both sexes have a very distinctive chuckling call note. Fairly common during the summer, these birds migrate as far as the middle of South America each winter. All year long they specialize in catching bees and wasps on the wing, somehow avoiding being stung by their catches.

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Keys to identification Help

Finchlike
Finchlike
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Summer Tanagers are medium-sized, chunky songbirds with big bodies and large heads. They have large, thick, blunt-tipped bills.

  • Color Pattern

    Adult male Summer Tanagers are entirely bright red. Females and immature males are bright yellow-green—yellower on the head and underparts and slightly greener on the back and wings. The bill is pale. Molting immature males can be patchy yellow and red.

  • Behavior

    Summer Tanagers tend to stay fairly high in the forest canopy, where they sit still and then sally out to catch flying insects in midair, or move slowly along tree branches to glean food. Males have a sweet, whistling song similar to an American Robin; both sexes give a distinctive pit-ti-tuck call note.

  • Habitat

    They breed near gaps and edges of open forests, particularly of deciduous trees or mixed pine-oak woodlands. In the Southwest, look for them along streams among willows, cottonwoods, mesquite, or saltcedar.

Range Map Help

Summer Tanager Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Adult male

    Summer Tanager

    Adult male
    • Large, heavy-billed tanager
    • Bright crimson red overall
    • Pale-colored bill "inflated" at base
    • © reddirtpics, Oklahoma, May 2011
  • Adult female

    Summer Tanager

    Adult female
    • Large, thick-billed tanager
    • Yellow-green overall
    • Pale, "inflated"-looking bill
    • Green undertail
    • © Ali Iyoob, North Carolina, June 2009
  • Immature male

    Summer Tanager

    Immature male
    • Stocky, heavy-billed tanager
    • Young males show patchy red and yellow-green throughout
    • Bill appears "inflated" at base
    • © Rolando Chavez, Tabasco, Mexico, April 2010
  • Adult male

    Summer Tanager

    Adult male
    • Stocky and heavy-billed
    • Very large, pale bill
    • Bright red overall
    • Slight crested appearance
    • © Cleber Ferreira, Winter Park, Florida, October 2011
  • Adult female

    Summer Tanager

    Adult female
    • Stocky, heavy-billed tanager
    • Dull yellow-green overall
    • Bill appears "inflated
    • Green on underside of tail
    • © Andy K. Jordan, Silver Leaf, Texas, September 2011
  • Immature male

    Summer Tanager

    Immature male
    • Stocky
    • Patchy red and green throughout
    • Thick, pale bill
    • © Stephen Ramirez, Texas, May 2011

Similar Species

  • Adult male

    Hepatic Tanager

    Adult male
    • Slightly larger than Summer Tanager
    • Shorter, darker bill
    • Dusky gray patch on cheek and back
    • Red plumage more muted overall
    • © Lois Manowitz, Madera Canyon, Arizona, April 2011
  • Female

    Scarlet Tanager

    Female
    • Smaller and more compact than Summer Tanager
    • Bill shorter, thinner, and darker
    • Dusky gray wings
    • © Laura Erickson, Minnesota, August 2010
  • Breeding male

    Scarlet Tanager

    Breeding male
    • Smaller and more compact than Summer Tanager
    • Black wings and tail
    • Smaller, darker bill
    • © Danny Bales, June 2011
  • Adult female

    Western Tanager

    Adult female
    • Smaller and more compact than Summer Tanager
    • Gray wings with two bright wing-bars
    • Smaller, darker bill
    • © Nick Dean, Ridgefield NWR, Washington, September 2012

Similar Species

  • The all-red male is fairly easy to identify; the yellow-green females and immatures can be a little trickier to recognize. Scarlet Tanagers—including males, females, and immatures—have black or blackish wings that contrast with the body, unlike Summer Tanagers. Female and immature Western Tanagers have blackish wings as well as bold wingbars, making them even more different from Summer Tanagers. In the Southwest, male Hepatic Tanagers are more brick-red than Summer Tanagers, with browner wings and less even coloration. Female and immature Hepatic Tanagers have dark bills and brownish wings. Male Northern Cardinals have a long, pointed crest, black feathers around the face, and a heavy, triangular, orangeish bill. Most other yellow songbirds, such as warblers and goldfinches, are considerably smaller and slimmer than Summer Tanagers, with different bill shape.

Backyard Tips

Although Summer Tanagers mostly eat bees and wasps, they may also forage on backyard berry bushes and fruit trees near their forest habitat.

Find This Bird

For such a bright-red bird, Summer Tanagers can be hard to see in the tops of leafy green trees. As with many forest songbirds, the best way to find them is to listen, both for the robin-like song and for their very distinctive, muttering pit-ti-tuck call note. Look for them in open woodlands (particularly of oaks and other deciduous trees) where they are usually in the mid-canopy and above.