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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.

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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
6.3–7.5 in
16–19 cm
Weight
0.8–1.3 oz
24–36 g
Relative Size
Larger than a Yellow Warbler; smaller than an American Robin.
Other Names
  • Tangara à tête rouge (French)
  • Tángara capucha roja (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • While most red birds owe their redness to a variety of plant pigments known as carotenoids, the Western Tanager gets its scarlet head feathers from a rare pigment called rhodoxanthin. Unable to make this substance in their own bodies, Western Tanagers probably obtain it from insects in their diet.
  • This species ranges farther north than any other tanager, breeding northward to a latitude of 60 degrees—into Canada’s Northwest Territories. In the chilly northernmost reaches of their breeding range, Western Tanagers may spend as little as two months before migrating south.
  • Male Western Tanagers sometimes perform an antic, eye-catching display, apparently a courtship ritual, in which they tumble past a female, their showy plumage flashing yellow and black.
  • Around the turn of the twentieth century, Western Tanagers were thought to pose a significant threat to commercial fruit crops. One observer wrote that in 1896, “the damage done to cherries in one orchard was so great that the sales of the fruit which was left did not balance the bills paid out for poison and ammunition.” Today, it is illegal to shoot native birds and Western Tanagers are safer than they were a century ago.
  • The oldest Western Tanager on record—a male originally banded in Nevada in 1965—had lived at least 6 years and 11 months by the time it was recaptured and rereleased in Oregon in 1971.

Habitat


Forest

Western Tanagers breed in open coniferous and mixed coniferous-deciduous woodlands up to about 10,000 feet elevation in western North America. These birds are especially common in forests of Douglas-fir, ponderosa pine, and lodgepole pine. They also breed in riparian woodlands, aspen forests, oak and pinyon-juniper woodlands. They usually favor open woods including wetlands, forest edges, and burns as well as suburban parks and gardens. Occasionally they foray into relatively dense forest. During migration, Western Tanagers frequent a wide variety of forest, woodland, scrub, and partly open habitats as well as human-made environments such as orchards, parks, gardens, and suburban areas. Their winter habitat in Middle America is generally in pine-oak woodland and forest edge.

Food


Insects

During breeding season, Western Tanagers eat mostly insects—especially wasps, ants, termites, stinkbugs, cicadas, beetles, grasshoppers, crane flies, dragonflies, caterpillars, scale insects, and sawflies. Before swallowing dragonflies, they clip the insects’ wings and occasionally also the head and legs. They also eat fruit, especially during fall and winter, when it may dominate the diet. Fruits eaten include hawthorn, wild cherries, elderberries, blackberries, mulberries, and serviceberries. Buds, for example those of greasewood bushes, occasionally add variety. Winter stragglers have been seen eating seeds at feeders.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
3–5 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
0.8–1 in
2–2.6 cm
Egg Width
0.6–0.7 in
1.5–1.9 cm
Incubation Period
13 days
Nestling Period
11–15 days
Egg Description
Blue or bluish green, sometimes almost white, and sparsely spotted with gray-brown.
Condition at Hatching
Helpless, eyes closed; head, back, and wings well covered with long, dense, white to pale-gray down.
Nest Description

Female Western Tanagers do all of the nest building—though their mates keep a close watch on the process, which takes roughly four or five days. The female lays out a foundation of large twigs, initially forming a floor and creating a scaffold, into which she weaves and molds longer, finer branches and roots to form a sturdy cup. She then lines the nest’s interior with finer fibers. Construction materials may include twigs, stems, grasses, rootlets, bark strips, mosses, and pine needles, with lining of finer rootlets, horsehair or cow hair, feathers, grasses, and other soft plant fibers. The final product has a hastily assembled look: a loosely woven, open, flat bowl with a relatively small cup for eggs.

Nest Placement

Tree

Western Tanagers usually nest in relatively open areas of the canopy. Females just arrived on the breeding grounds move constantly through the canopy as if evaluating possible nest sites.

Behavior


Foliage Gleaner

Western Tanagers spend most of their time quietly, methodically plucking food from twigs, branches, flowers, and foliage in the upper portions of forest trees and shrubs. They also scan for insects, perching motionless except for side-to-side movements of the head before sallying out flycatcher-fashion to nab prey on the wing. They are swift flyers with rapid, powerful wing-beats and can hover for a few seconds at a time. After returning to their breeding areas, males establish territories with nonstop singing, especially at the borders of their territory. Both males and females chase away intruders. A male Western Tanager stays close to his mate during nest-building and egg-laying; the pair is almost always together when she’s not sitting on the nest, and he sometimes feeds her at or near the nest.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Western Tanagers are common and their numbers have increased gradually (at about 1.2 percent per year) over the last half-century, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at about 11 million individuals, with 32 percent breeding in Canada, 68 percent breeding in the U.S., and 75 percent wintering in Mexico. They rate an 8 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are not on the 2012 Watch List. This species uses open habitats and edges over forest interior and does not require large forest patches to breed. It has therefore fared better than other species in response to forest fragmentation. Because Western Tanagers are closely associated with Douglas-fir forests of the interior West, management practices in these forests will be important to them.

Credits

Range Map Help

Western Tanager Range Map
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Migration

Long-distance migrant. Western Tanagers migrate at night, usually on their own or in small groups.

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.

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