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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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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
6.7 in
17 cm
Weight
1.1 oz
30 g
Relative Size
Smaller than an American Robin; larger than a Yellow Warbler.
Other Names
  • Tangara vermillon (French)
  • Cardenal veranero, Cardenal rojo, Tángara de Paso, Tángara rojo, Tángara veranera, Candelo unicolor (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • The Summer Tanager is a bee and wasp specialist. It catches these insects in flight and kills them by beating them against a branch. Before eating a bee, the tanager rubs it on the branch to remove the stinger. Summer Tanagers eat larvae, too: first they get rid of the adults, and then they tear open the nest to get the grubs.
  • Like most birds that migrate long distances, the Summer Tanager puts on large fat deposits to fuel its long flight. In one study, tanagers arriving in Panama had enough fat to fly an estimated additional 890 km (553 mi).
  • Summer Tanagers are closely related to several other North American birds in the genus Piranga, including Scarlet and Western tanagers. Taxonomists used to place this genus in the same family as the true tanagers, but they now consider Summer Tanagers and their relatives to be part of the cardinal family instead.
  • In places where both Summer and Scarlet tanagers live, the Summer Tanager breeds in shorter and more open woodlands. In the West, Western and Hepatic tanagers use coniferous forests at higher elevations, while Summer Tanagers breed in lowlands along streams.
  • The oldest Summer Tanager on record was at least 7 years, 11 months old when it was captured and released by a Texas bird bander in 1986.

Habitat


Open Woodland

Summer Tanagers breed in gaps and edges of open deciduous or pine-oak forests across the southern and mid-Atlantic U.S. In the Southwest they breed in low-elevation willow and cottonwood woodlands, and in higher-elevation mesquite and saltcedar stands. During migration, Summer Tanagers stop in habitats similar to those of their breeding range, as well as parks, gardens, and beach ridges. They spend the winter in many types of open and second-growth habitats in southern Mexico, Central America, and northern South America.

Food


Insects

Summer Tanagers specialize on bees and wasps on both their breeding and wintering ranges. They also eat other aerial and terrestrial invertebrates—such as spiders, cicadas, beetles, ants, termites, grasshoppers, flies, moths, and bugs—as well as fruits such as mulberries, blackberries, pokeweed, Cecropia, citrus, and bananas. They capture flying insects during short sallies, carrying their prey back and beating it repeatedly against the perch. They glean terrestrial insects from the leaves and bark of trees and shrubs. To harvest fruit, they may hover and pluck individual fruits, or glean from a perched position.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
3–4 eggs
Number of Broods
1-2 broods
Egg Length
0.9–1 in
2.2–2.5 cm
Egg Width
0.6–0.7 in
1.6–1.8 cm
Incubation Period
11–12 days
Nestling Period
8–12 days
Egg Description
Pale blue to pale green, with brown markings.
Condition at Hatching
Helpless and covered with yellowish gray down feathers, with eyes closed.
Nest Description

The female gathers the nest material and builds the nest by herself, though the male may accompany her as she moves back and forth. Using dried grasses and other herbaceous vegetation, she weaves a crude cup measuring about 3.5 inches across and 2 inches high on the outside, with an inner cavity about 1 inch deep and 3 inches across.

Nest Placement

Tree

The nest is usually within a cluster of leaves or a fork of branches overhanging a road, creekbed, or treefall gap in the forest.

Behavior


Foliage Gleaner

At the beginning of the breeding season, males sing and chase each other vigorously to define territorial boundaries. Each male has only one mate per breeding season. The female incubates the eggs by herself while the male forages, preens, and rests. In some breeding pairs, but not all, the male brings food to his incubating mate. However, all males seem to bring food on the day the chicks hatch, and the parents share feeding duty for the nestlings. When the young leave the nest at about 10 days old they are barely able to fly, so they take cover in vegetation and beg for food by calling periodically. Their parents feed them for at least three weeks after they fledge. Breeding tanagers are parasitized by cowbirds (which lay eggs in their nests) and aggressively chase these intruders from nesting areas. Outside of the breeding season, Summer Tanagers are usually solitary, although they sometimes follow mixed-species flocks of fruit-eating birds on their wintering grounds.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Summer Tanagers are fairly common and their populations are stable, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates their global breeding population at 12 million, with 83 percent breeding in the U.S., none in Canada, and 17 percent spending part of the year in Mexico. They score a 9 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are not on the 2012 watch list. However, populations have declined sharply in California and along the Colorado River, from the rapid conversion of riverside forest to agriculture and other uses.

Credits

Range Map Help

Summer Tanager Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Long distance migrant. Summer Tanagers leave the breeding grounds in September and October and migrate mostly at night. Eastern and central populations cross the Gulf of Mexico to reach their wintering grounds, while western populations may move over land through Mexico. They return north by late May.

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.