Scarlet Tanager

Piranga olivacea

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Image of a male scarlet tanager
Male scarlet tanagers are brilliant scarlet with black wings and tail.
MDC Staff
Family

Cardinalidae (cardinals) in the order Passeriformes

Description

Adult male upperparts are brilliant scarlet, with black wings and tail. Underparts are scarlet. Female is yellow below and olive above, with olive-gray wings and tail. The bill is smaller than that of the closely related summer tanager. In late summer, males molt to a female-like plumage. During the molting process they are blotched with scarlet and yellow olive. The song is robinlike but very burry: zerreet-zeerer-zerruu or queret-querer-queer-queret. The call is a distinctive CHIP-burr.

Similar species: An obsolete common name, "black-winged redbird," sums it up nicely: male scarlet tanagers can be confused with little else. Males of the closely related summer tanager are all red, larger overall, and have a larger bill. Female summer tanagers, like the males, have wings that are only vaguely darker than the rest of their bodies. Western tanagers are rarely seen in Missouri; if in doubt, remember that male and female westerns both have wingbars. Male cardinals, though bright red, are slimmer than tanagers, have a thick, finch-like bill, a crest, and a black mask.

Key Identifiers

 

  • Males robin-sized, red with black wings and tail
  • Females and young males are olive and yellow, with grayish wings and tail
  • Nonbreeding males colored like females, but with black wings and tail
  • Usually perch high in trees
  • They're here for summer breeding; not in winter
  • Listen for their songs and calls.

 

Size

Length: 7 inches (tip of bill to tip of tail).

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Photo of female scarlet tanager held in a person's hand
Scarlet Tanager (Female)
Female scarlet tanagers are yellow below and olive above, with grayish wings and tail.

Scarlet_Tanager_Male.jpg

Male Scarlet Tanager
Male Scarlet Tanager
Habitat and conservation

During summer, scarlet tanagers are usually seen foraging in the high in the canopy of oak-hickory forests and in large shade trees of the eastern U.S. and southern Canada. Breeding scarlet tanagers in Missouri are associated with oaks in upper slopes and ridges of mature forest.

Foods

Forages on insects and berries in forests, woodlands, and parks where there are mature trees.

image  of Scarlet Tanager distribution map
Distribution in Missouri

Statewide.

Status

Common transient (migrant); uncommon summer resident. Until recently, tanagers in the genus Piranga were placed in the tanager family (Thraupidae), a large family of tropical birds. But DNA testing showed that these "tanagers" in genus Piranga (including scarlet, summer, and western tanagers) belong in the cardinal family, even though they strongly resemble most other birds in the tanager family. As it does with people, DNA testing reveals true genetic relationships despite external looks.

Life cycle

Scarlet tanagers are present in Missouri from mid-April to mid-October, with numbers peaking in mid-May and again in mid-September. They spend winters in northwestern South America, foraging alongside a host of exotic tropical birds in tall trees in mountain forests ranging from Panama south to Bolivia. In summers in North America, they nest high in mature trees such as maples and oaks. A clutch comprises 3–5 eggs, which are incubated 12–14 days. After hatching, the young spend another 9–15 days in the nest. There is only 1 brood a year.

Human connections

Both male and female scarlet tanagers are gorgeous! To find them, learn to recognize their songs and their "CHIP-burr" call. Then, in spring and summer, visit mature deciduous (not pine) forests and listen. Bring binoculars, and expect them to be high in trees. Look for movements of red: tanagers busily hop and flit about as they hunt insects.

Ecosystem connections

Scarlet tanagers are sometimes parasitized by brown-headed cowbirds, which lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, who unwittingly raise the interlopers, often at the expense of their own young's survival. Because cowbirds are grassland birds and don't live in the centers of large forests, it's important to conserve large unbroken tracts of forests as nesting places for tanagers and others.