scarlet tanager closeup

How could a bird be this bright and hide in a forest?

On the 4th of July, we saw, appropriately, a firecracker of a bird.  For weeks we had been discussing why we hadn’t yet seen a scarlet tanager on our property and then I went outside and heard the distinct – ‘chick-burr’ call.  The sun was bright and still rising in the east, but the bird was somewhere overhead in the shaded recesses of a red pine. You wouldn’t think such a bird could hide itself in any situation, but the branches were thick and it hopped from one to the other.  We caught enough glimpses to satisfy ourselves that it truly was the bird we’d been looking for. For Birdwatchers, this is one of the highlights of the year.

A little later my grandson Matthew and I were going for a bike ride, and I got another, much better look at the bird, as it flew into the sparse Jack pines right along our road. Seeing one so suddenly was almost enough to make me lose my balance as my eyes left the road, to follow the scarlet streak.

migration map for Scarlet tanager

Migratory routes and winter and summer habitats of the Scarlet Tanager

Tanagers, with over 200 species are strictly birds of the western hemisphere.  Most are found in Central and South America and they come in so many vivid hues that they seem to have stolen the colors of the rainbow.  In our travels to Venezuela and Trinidad we have seen tanagers in gorgeous shades of blue, gold, yellow, red, and green, but there are only four reliable tanagers in the U.S.  They are the Hepatic (southwest), the Summer (southeast), the Western (just like its name), and the Scarlet (midwest and eastern). The males come in shades of mostly red with the Western adding a blazing yellow.  There is no other bird in the U.S. that has the flame red body and black wings and tail like our scarlet tanager..  While the cardinal can light up a winter day, it can’t hold a candle to the scarlet tanager.

scarlet tanager with insect

This male Scarlet Tanager has found a wasp for a meal.

While we saw the bird in a pine, they are just as likely to be found in an oak, maple or other deciduous tree.  They seem to prefer deciduous forests for their nests.  We do have oak trees growing among our pines, so it’s quite possible a pair will nest nearby; we can only hope.  The ‘chick-burr’ call I heard is sometimes given by the male when he perceives danger too close to the nest.  I wish now that I had watched more closely that day to see if I could spot one of the drab yellow green females in the same area.

Scarlet tanager female

Female Scarlet Tanager

While tanagers do not generally eat Birdseed most of their diet consists of insects and fruit.  The young are mainly fed a high protein insect diet.  The adults will find their food by gleaning them from the leaves and bark of the trees or by flying up and plucking an insect from the air.  By the end of summer, before migration begins, the male will lose his glorious red feathers and replace them with the more somber colors of his mate, though he keeps his black wings and tail. The young also look like their mother and apparently whoever first saw these birds and named them, saw them at this time of year because their Latin name is Piranga (South American name for a bird) olivacea (meaning olive color).  As a footnote I might add that the great John James Audubon painted both the female and the male, but thought they were different species.

As far as names go, I prefer some of the other common names people have given the scarlet tanager, like ‘flamebird’ and ‘pocketbird’.  Whatever we call them, they are stunning and an explosion of color in the middle of a green world.

By Kate Crowley