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Western Tanager Life History


ForestsWestern 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.Back to top


InsectsDuring 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. Back to top


Nest Placement

TreeWestern 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.

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.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:3-5 eggs
Egg Length:0.8-1.0 in (2-2.6 cm)
Egg Width:0.6-0.8 in (1.5-1.9 cm)
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.
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Foliage GleanerWestern 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. Back to top


Low Concern

Western Tanagers are common, and their numbers increased between 1966 and 2019, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at about 15 million individuals and rates them 9 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating a species of low conservation concern. 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.

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Ehrlich, P. R., D. S. Dobkin, and D. Wheye (1988). The Birder's Handbook. A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds, Including All Species That Regularly Breed North of Mexico. Simon and Schuster Inc., New York, NY, USA.

Hudon, Jocelyn. (1999). Western Tanager (Piranga ludoviciana), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. (2020). Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2020. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2020.

Partners in Flight. (2020). Avian Conservation Assessment Database, version 2020.

Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski Jr., K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link (2019). The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2019. Version 2.07.2019. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, USA.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

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