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Help develop a Bird ID tool!

Scarlet Tanager

Piranga olivacea ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: CARDINALIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Male Scarlet Tanagers are among the most blindingly gorgeous birds in an eastern forest in summer, with blood-red bodies set off by jet-black wings and tail. They’re also one of the most frustratingly hard to find as they stay high in the forest canopy singing rich, burry songs. The yellowish-green, dark-winged females can be even harder to spot until you key in on this bird’s chick-burr call note. In fall, males trade red feathers for yellow-green and the birds take off for northern South America.

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Keys to identification Help

Finchlike
Finchlike
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Scarlet Tanagers are medium-sized songbirds with fairly stocky proportions. They have thick, rounded bills suitable both for catching insects and eating fruit. The head is fairly large and the tail is somewhat short and broad.

  • Color Pattern

    In spring and summer, adult males are an unmistakable, brilliant red with black wings and tails. Females and fall immatures are olive-yellow with darker olive wings and tails. After breeding, adult males molt to female-like plumage, but with black wings and tail.

  • Behavior

    Primarily insectivorous during the summer, Scarlet Tanagers also eat fruit during migration and on the wintering grounds. They spend much of their time skulking among the wide leaves of deciduous trees in the forest canopy, where they are hard to see. They sing a burry, rambling song and give a distinctive, harsh chick-burr call.

  • Habitat

    Scarlet Tanagers breed in deciduous and mixed deciduous-evergreen forests in eastern North America. They are somewhat sensitive to habitat fragmentation, so look for them in large, undisturbed tracts of forest. During migration, they move through a broader variety of forest and shrubby habitats, as well as backyards.

Range Map Help

Scarlet Tanager Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Breeding male

    Scarlet Tanager

    Breeding male
    • Distinctive with brilliant red plumage contrasting with black wings and tail
    • Bulging silver-gray bill
    • Dark eye
    • Short tail
    • © Danny Bales, June 2011
  • Female

    Scarlet Tanager

    Female
    • Greenish-yellow overall with bright yellow on face and throat
    • Long, slender, dull olive wings
    • Bulging olive-gray bill
    • © Jim Mcree, Bangor, Maine, September 2010
  • Breeding male

    Scarlet Tanager

    Breeding male
    • Brilliant scarlet body and head with striking black wings and taill
    • Thick gray bill
    • Short tail
    • Dark eye
    • © Danny Bales, April 2010
  • Female

    Scarlet Tanager

    Female
    • Olive/yellow overall with brighter yellow on face and throat
    • Dullest on back and wings
    • Short tail
    • Bulging gray/olive bill
    • © edgc211, Storrs, Connecticut, May 2008
  • Breeding Male

    Scarlet Tanager

    Breeding Male
    • Striking, unmistakable red and black contrasting plumage
    • Thick, silver/gray bill
    • Long, pointed wings and short tail
    • © Joel DeYoung, Ottawa County, Michigan, June 2010
  • Nonbreeding male

    Scarlet Tanager

    Nonbreeding male
    • Similar to female but with black wings
    • Brighter yellow/olive on face and breast
    • © Yvonne, September 2011

Similar Species

  • Breeding Male

    Summer Tanager

    Breeding Male
    • Larger than Scarlet Tanager
    • Longer, heavier bill
    • Bright rosy red overall with no contrasting plumage
    • © Andy Jordan, High Island, Texas, April 2011
  • Female

    Summer Tanager

    Female
    • Similar to female Scarlet Tanager but larger
    • Longer, heavier bill
    • Olive/yellow coloration more uniform overall with fewer dull and bright patches
    • © Ali Iyoob, June 2009
  • Female

    Western Tanager

    Female
    • © Ernest Gaudreau, Botanical Gardens, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, California, September 2010

Similar Species

Summer Tanagers are slightly larger and have stockier, pale bills. Both the red males and the olive-yellow females have wings that are barely darker than their bodies, unlike the sharply contrasting dark wings of Scarlet Tanagers. Western Tanagers, which typically don’t overlap in range with Scarlet Tanagers, show yellow rumps and highly contrasting wingbars (one yellow, one white). Male Northern Cardinals have an obvious crest, a much thicker, seed-eating bill, and red wings. Cardinals usually perch in low bushes or hop on the ground, whereas Scarlet Tanagers prefer forest canopy.

Backyard Tips

Scarlet Tanagers visit many kinds of berry plants, including blackberries, raspberries, huckleberries, juneberries, serviceberries, mulberries, strawberries, and chokeberries.

Find This Bird

During spring migration and summer, listen for the raspy, robin-like song of the male Scarlet Tanager in mature deciduous forest in the East. They like to stay high in the trees, but if you are patient and keep looking up, you’ll probably see a flash of brilliant red as the male changes song perches or goes after an insect. During late summer and fall migration, Scarlet Tanagers often join mixed flocks of other songbirds to feed. If you can learn this bird’s distinctive chick-burr call note, it’s very useful for finding both males and females.

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