Living Bird Magazine
Western TanagerPiranga ludoviciana
- ORDER: Passeriformes
- FAMILY: Cardinalidae
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.More ID Info
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.
- Piranga Capucha Roja (Spanish)
- Piranga à tête rouge (French)
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.
- 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 he was recaptured and rereleased during banding operations in Oregon in 1971.