Scarlet Tanager

“The Black-winged Red Bird” 

By DAVE HICKS

Although not one of our most common birds, Scarlet Tanagers (Piranga olivacea), specially the males in breeding plumage, are one of the easiest to identify.  They are cardinal-sized, and their bright red coloration with jet-black wings and tail is unique.  However, they are often not so easy to actually get a glimpse of, as they spend much of their time among the leaves of the treetops.  Females also have an interesting color pattern, but one that makes them even harder to spot.  The red and black of the male are replaced by yellowish green and dark gray.  During the non-breeding season male Scarlet Tanagers develop a female-like greenish plumage, although retaining the black wings and tail.

Vocally, Scarlet Tanagers sound rather like American Robins with a sore throat.  They also have a very distinctive chick-burrr call (You can hear sound files at http://bit.ly/14gxoGx).  The female’s song is like that of the male, but less harsh in texture. Male birds usually sing to defend their territories against other males of their own species.  Where Scarlet and Summer Tanagers both occur, males will defend territories against the other species as well as their own.

Scarlet Tanagers typically nest in the interior of mature deciduous forests, so they are tied to relatively undisturbed habitats.  They usually do not breed in forest areas of less than 25 acres.  In smaller forest patches they are strongly affected by nest parasites and predators such as cowbirds and raccoons, reducing their reproductive success.  They can be found well up into Canada in the breeding season, but their greatest abundance is in forests of the central Appalachians from Pennsylvania to Virginia, although they also breed in the Midwest.  In the TAS May count, Scarlet Tanagers have been seen every year but one since the start of the count in 1976.  However, it is rare for more than 20 individuals to be seen during our count.

Nests are oval to round and are fairly neatly built of twigs and grass.  They are located on horizontal tree branches, high up and away from the trunk.  A clutch usually consists of four greenish or bluish eggs with brown to purple spots.  They are incubated for about two weeks, and the young fledge about 10 days after hatching.

Although Scarlet Tanagers breed in Indiana and count as one of “our” bird species, they are Neotropical migrants.  They move out of our area in the winter and spend their time in Central America and the eastern Andean foothills from Panama to Bolivia.  There they join the mixed-species flocks that are typical of the tropics, and consort with a variety of tropical birds including other tanagers.  Even on their wintering grounds, they tend to prefer well-developed forests.

Scarlet Tanagers have fairly large beaks that are suited for eating a range of food items.  Like a number of local bird species, they switch from an insect-based diet in the breeding season to feeding mostly on fruit in the migratory and overwintering periods.   During the summer, they feed primarily in the forest canopy.  As well as catching insects on branches and twigs, they hawk (chase and capture flying insects).  Males and females differ somewhat in their feeding methods, with females foraging higher in the canopy and hawking more often than males.

Although they require the interior of mature forest areas for breeding, Scarlet Tanagers seem to be holding their own in population size.  The Partners in Flight organization estimates a total population size of about 2.2 million, with almost all of the breeding population in the US.  Breeding Bird Surveys, organized by the US Fish and Wildlife Service since 1966, indicate that US populations have been rather stable since the 1980s.  In the Great Lakes region, populations have been on the rise, which compensates for losses in Canada and the northeastern US.  However, deforestation in the US and the tropics constitutes a potential threat to the species.

Scarlet Tanagers belong to the genus Piranga, of which there are four other species found in the US.  The only one that occurs regularly in Indiana (mostly in the southern part of the state) is the Summer Tanager, in which the black and gray areas of the Scarlet Tanager are replaced by dark red in the male and light gray in the female.  The colorful Western Tanager occurs from the Great Plains to southern Alaska.  Two more species, the Flame-Colored and the Hepatic Tanager, occur only in the Southwest.

Tanagers are now considered to be members of the Cardinalidae, the Cardinal Family.  They were formerly classified in the large family Thraupidae, the Tanager family, which includes many colorful birds in Central and South America.  However, recent DNA studies have shown that this family needs to be reclassified, and some birds previously in the Thraupidae have been moved to the Finch and Cardinal Families.

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