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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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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
6.3–6.7 in
16–17 cm
Wingspan
9.8–11.4 in
25–29 cm
Weight
0.8–1.3 oz
23–38 g
Relative Size
Slightly smaller than a Northern Cardinal; larger than a Yellow Warbler.
Other Names
  • Tangara écarlate (French)
  • Tángara escarlata (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • On the wintering grounds in South America the Scarlet Tanager joins mixed species foraging flocks with flycatchers, antbirds, woodcreepers, and resident tropical tanagers.
  • The female Scarlet Tanager sings a song similar to the male's, but softer, shorter, and less harsh. She sings in answer to the male's song and while she is gathering nesting material.
  • The response of the Scarlet Tanager to habitat fragmentation varies from place to place. Results from the Cornell Lab’s Project Tanager indicate that in the heart of the species’ range in the Northeast, it can be found in small forest patches. In the Midwest, similar sized forest patches tend to have no tanagers.
  • Scarlet Tanagers often play host to eggs of the Brown-headed Cowbird, particularly where the forest habitat has been fragmented. When a pair of tanagers notices a female cowbird approaching, they aggressively drive her away. If they don’t notice, the cowbird gets rid of a tanager egg and replaces it with one of her own. The tanagers apparently can’t tell the difference, either before or after the egg hatches, and they raise the imposter along with the rest of their brood.
  • The oldest Scarlet Tanager on record was nearly 12 years old.

Habitat


Forest

Scarlet Tanagers breed in mature deciduous forests and mixed deciduous-coniferous forests in eastern North America. They nest in oak, pine-oak, oak-hickory, beech, hemlock-hardwood, and occasionally pure eastern hemlock forests. In Canada they sometimes extend into boreal forests in stands of aspen, balsam poplar, and birch. Breeding Scarlet Tanagers prefer large forest tracts with large trees. During spring and fall they use similar forest habitats as well as open spaces such as parks and gardens. When they arrive in the southern United States coast in early spring they feed in shrubby vegetation, grassy fields, and on the ground. Scarlet Tanagers winter in mature forests and forest edges in northern and western South America, mostly on hills and mountains. They range south as far as the Bolivian lowlands.

Food


Insects

Scarlet Tanagers eat mainly insects along with some fruit and tender buds. Their invertebrate diet includes ants, sawflies, moths, butterflies, beetles, flies, cicadas, leafhoppers, spittlebugs, treehoppers, plant lice, scale insects, termites, grasshoppers, locusts, dragonflies, dobsonflies, snails, earthworms, and spiders. While searching for these tidbits they walk along branches high in the canopy or (rarely) along the ground, or vertically on tree trunks to probe the bark. Scarlet Tanagers perch or hover with fast wingbeats to grab insects from leaves, bark, and flowers, and they catch flying insects like bees, wasps, and hornets from the air. They swallow small larvae whole, but they kill larger prey by pressing it into a branch. In the winter, they forage in mixed-species flocks with woodcreepers, flycatchers, barbets, and tropical tanagers.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
3–5 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
0.8–1.1 in
2–2.7 cm
Egg Width
0.6–0.7 in
1.5–1.8 cm
Incubation Period
12–14 days
Nestling Period
9–15 days
Egg Description
Greenish blue to light blue speckled with chestnut, purplish red, and lilac.
Condition at Hatching
Helpless, eyes closed, with orange skin and small tufts of grayish white down on the head and back.
Nest Description

The female gathers nesting material from the forest floor and builds a flimsy nest in 3–4 days, spending relatively little time on it each day. She drops material onto the nest, hops in, and molds it into shape by pressing her body against the sides and bottom, then getting out and weaving in loose ends. The nest is a loosely woven saucer of twigs, grasses, plant stalks, bark strips, rootlets, and pine needles. It has a shallow and asymmetrical interior space, lined with grass, fine rootlets, fine plant fibers, vine tendrils, and pine needles.

Nest Placement

Tree

The female chooses the nest site, usually selecting a shaded spot within a cluster of leaves at a juncture of small branches. Nests are often fairly high (50 feet or more from the ground) on a nearly horizontal branch well away from the trunk. The site usually has an unobstructed view of the ground and open flyways from nearby trees. Scarlet Tanagers tend to nest in mature deciduous trees such as maple, beech, and oak, but they also nest in eastern hemlock.

Scarlet Tanager Nest Image 1
© 2004 Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Scarlet Tanager Nest Image 2
© 2004 Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Behavior


Foliage Gleaner

Scarlet Tanagers are strong fliers, making swift, direct flights and migrating long distances in fall and spring. Males arrive early on their breeding grounds to defend loose territories that include mating, nesting, and foraging areas. Territorial singing battles sometimes can escalate to confrontations, where one or both males spread and droop their wings and raise their tail in threat. If neither backs down, the standoff culminates in one male chasing another. Scarlet Tanagers are monogamous within each breeding season but switch mates from year to year. Parents feed their young for up to two weeks after the birds fledge, and then the family disperses before migrating. On wintering grounds Scarlet Tanagers join up with other species in foraging flocks.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Scarlet Tanager populations appear stable, although their numbers fluctuated regionally from 1966 to 2010, according to the North American breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 2.2 million with 93 percent spending some part of the year in the U.S., and 7 percent breeding in Canada.They rate an 11 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are not on the 2012 Watch List. Scarlet Tanagers are interior forest species, so changes in land-use—fragmentation by development as well as regrowth as cleared land reverts to forest—may be responsible for some of these conflicting trends. In fragmented landscapes, nests are in greater danger of being parasitized by Brown-headed Cowbirds and from predators that operate along habitat edges. To safeguard the Scarlet Tanager population, researchers recommend preserving and restoring mature forest habitat for breeding, migrating, and wintering birds.

Credits

Range Map Help

Scarlet Tanager Range Map
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Migration

Long-distance migrant. Twice a year, Scarlet Tanagers fly across the Gulf of Mexico between their breeding grounds in eastern North America and their wintering grounds in South America. They usually migrate at night. Individuals that spend the winter farther south migrate to breeding grounds later, and in more synchronized bursts, than individuals wintering further north.

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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