• Skip to Content
  • Skip to Main Navigation
  • Skip to Local Navigation
  • Skip to Search
  • Skip to Sitemap
  • Skip to Footer
Help develop a Bird ID tool!

Western Tanager

Piranga ludoviciana ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: CARDINALIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

A clear look at a male Western Tanager is like looking at a flame: an orange-red head, brilliant yellow body, and coal-black wings, back and tail. Females and immatures are a somewhat dimmer yellow-green and blackish. These birds live in open woods all over the West, particularly among evergreens, where they often stay hidden in the canopy. Nevertheless, they’re a quintessential woodland denizen in summertime, where they fill the woods with their short, burry song and low, chuckling call notes.

Be a Better Birder Tutorial 3
Bird Festivals

Keys to identification Help

Finchlike
Finchlike
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Western Tanagers are stocky songbirds; fairly small yet noticeably larger and heavier-bodied than warblers. They have short, thick-based bills and medium-length tails.

  • Color Pattern

    Adult male Western Tanagers are yellow birds with black wings and a flaming orange-red head. The wings have two bold wingbars; the upper one yellow and the lower white. The back and tail are black. Adult females have red restricted to the front of the face, with subdued yellow-green plumage on the body. Immatures in fall lack red, while in spring show less red on the head relative to that on adults of their respective sex.

  • Behavior

    Western Tanagers forage slowly and methodically along branches and among leaves or needles of trees. They eat primarily insects, supplemented with small fruits in fall and winter. They sometimes catch insects in the air. In spring and summer , males sing their hoarse, American Robin-like song frequently.

  • Habitat

    Western Tanagers breed in coniferous forests, though they are not particularly choosy about which conifer species. They breed in juniper-pine mixtures at low elevation, up to spruce-fir near treeline. During migration, you may find them in nearly any shrubby or wooded habitats, and even in fairly open country. Their winter habitat in Middle America is generally in pine-oak woodland and forest edge.

Range Map Help

Western Tanager Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Breeding male

    Western Tanager

    Breeding male
    • Stocky, mostly bright-yellow songbird
    • Scarlet red on face
    • Two bright wing-bars on jet black wings
    • © Lora Render, Hereford, Arizona, May 2012
  • Female

    Western Tanager

    Female
    • Medium-sized, mostly bright yellow songbird
    • Gray back and wings contrast with bright yellow rump/tail
    • Two bright wing-bars
    • © Ernest Gaudreau, Golden Gate, San Francisco, California, September 2010
  • Breeding male

    Western Tanager

    Breeding male
    • Mostly bright yellow with black back, wings, and tail
    • Scarlet red on crown and face
    • Two bright wing-bars
    • © Dickson Smith, Brigham City, Utah, June 2011
  • Female

    Western Tanager

    Female
    • Stocky, mostly yellow songbird
    • Gray back contrasts with bright yellow rump and under-tail
    • Two bright wing-bars
    • © Nick Dean, Ridgefield NWR, Washington, September 2012
  • Nonbreeding male

    Western Tanager

    Nonbreeding male
    • Similar to breeding male, but with red limited or absent on head
    • Duller yellow on breast and back with more olive tones
    • Two bright wing-bars
    • © Christopher Adler, San Diego, California, May 2012
  • Breeding male

    Western Tanager

    Breeding male
    • Bright yellow, medium-sized songbird
    • Scarlet red/orange on crown and face
    • Two bright wing-bars on black wings
    • Black tail
    • © Lois Manowitz, Ventana County, Arizona, August 2010
  • Female

    Western Tanager

    Female
    • Stocky, medium-sized songbirds
    • Younger females are duller olive/yellow
    • Gray back contrasts with brighter yellow rump
    • Two bright wing-bars
    • © Raymond Lee, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, August 2010

Similar Species

  • Adult female

    Scarlet Tanager

    Adult female
    • Similar to female Western Tanager, but lacks wing-bars
    • More olive-green than yellow
    • © edgc211, Storrs, Connecticut, May 2008

Similar Species

Male Summer Tanagers and Hepatic Tanagers are nearly entirely red, while females are entirely yellowish. Be aware that immature Summer Tanagers in spring are a mix of red and yellow, and they may show mostly red heads and yellow bodies. Summer and Hepatic Tanagers have larger bills and lack the wingbars of Western Tanagers. Both species’ songs are less hoarse than Western Tanagers. Scarlet Tanagers do not normally overlap in range with Western Tanagers; they also lack wingbars. Other yellow-and-black songbirds, such as the American Goldfinch and some warblers, are much smaller and daintier than Western Tanagers, with smaller bills and more slender proportions.

Backyard Tips

Although they don’t typically eat seeds, Western Tanagers may eat dried fruit, freshly cut oranges, and other fresh fruit at bird feeders. If you live in a wooded area within this bird’s range, providing moving water or a birdbath or pond may help attract them to your yard.

Find This Bird

Western Tanagers are common in western conifer forests during the breeding season. Look for them in fairly open conifer forests. They can be hard to see despite the males’ bright colors, so listen for a loud, hoarse, rising-and-following song of two-, three-, or four-note phrases. They also have a distinctive chuckling or rattling call similar to the Summer Tanager’s call. They usually forage in the upper parts of conifers, so watch those treetops carefully. In migration and on winter grounds, the species is usually found in small flocks, often mixed with other tanager species or with Black-headed Grosbeaks.

You Might Also Like

eBird Occurrence Maps, Western Tanager