Summer Tanager

Piranga rubra

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Photo of a male summer tanager perched on a small branch
Adult male summer tanagers are entirely red — an unforgettable sight as they forage for insects among bright green tree leaves in early summer.
Jim Rathert
Family

Cardinalidae (cardinals) in the order Passeriformes

Description

The adult male summer tanager is entirely rosy red, slightly darker on wings and tail. When molting occurs and new feathers are grown, the rose-red plumage is retained year round. Young males are blotched red and yellow during the spring and summer following their first migration, and they may have a red head like a western tanager. Females are yellowish below and olive yellow above, slightly more orange-red tinged than the female scarlet tanager. The bill of the summer tanager is noticeably larger than that of the scarlet tanager. The song, about 2 to 4 seconds long, is a melodious, slurred, robinlike series, usually with a few prit-ti-voy phrases within the song. The call is a dry, sharp pit titi tuck or chi ti bit, accented on the first note.

Similar species: Male western tanagers might be confused with young summer tanager males, but westerns are very rarely seen in our state; also, they have dark wings with white wing bars, and their yellow rump contrasts with a black back. The eastern edge of the western tanager’s range is in Colorado and Wyoming, but the species might be seen casually in Missouri — almost always in late fall or in winter, however.

Key Identifiers

 

  • Adult males are all red.
  • Females are mustard yellow/ochre (less olive or greenish than scarlet tanager females).
  • Some females, and young males, can have patches of red on the body feathers.
  • The bill is larger than that of scarlet tanager.
  • Song similar to American robin’s.
Size

Length: 7¾ inches.

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Photo of a male summer tanager perched on a barbwire fence
Summer Tanager Male
The adult male summer tanager is entirely rosy red, slightly darker on wings and tail.

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Photo of a male summer tanager undergoing first spring molt
Summer Tanager Male During First Spring
Young male summer tanagers are blotched red and yellow during the spring and summer following their first migration, and they may have a red head like a western tanager.

Summer_Tanager_female_portrait_6-27-17.jpg

Photo of a female summer tanager perched on a branch
Summer Tanager Female
Females are yellowish below and olive yellow above, slightly more ochre or orange-red tinged than the female scarlet tanager.

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Photo of a male summer tanager eating a beetle
Summer Tanager Eating A Beetle
Summer tanagers eat a variety of insects, which are often captured in flight. The bird typically whacks the insect on a branch to subdue it.

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Photo of a summer tanager visiting a bird feeder
Summer Tanager
Summer tanagers sometimes come to bird feeders with fruit available.

Summer_Tanager_female_bill_6-27-17.jpg

Photo of a female summer tanager perched on a branch
Summer Tanager Female
The summer tanager's bill is noticeably larger than that of the scarlet tanager.

Summer_Tanager_male_6-27-17.jpg

Photo of a male summer tanager, perched on a small branch
Summer Tanager Male
An old nickname for the summer tanager is “summer redbird,” which distinguished this summer-resident species from the “winter redbird” (the northern cardinal), which is present year-round.

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Photo of a male summer tanager, perched on a small branch, singing
Summer Tanager Singing Male
The rich, lazy song of the summer tanager is about 2 to 4 seconds long. It is a melodious, slurred, robinlike series, usually with a few "prit-ti-voy" phrases within it.

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Photo of a summer tanager fledgling perched on a small branch
Summer Tanager July Fledgling
Summer tanagers typically lay 3 or 4 eggs, which are incubated 11–12 days. The young remain in the nest another 8–12 days before beginning to fledge.

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Photo of a female summer tanager perched on a small branch
Summer Tanager Female
A summer tanager can live to be at least 7 years old — that's seven trips to and from their wintering range extending from southern Mexico well into South America!

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Photo of a male summer tanager eating a caterpillar
Summer Tanager Male Eating A Caterpillar
Summer tanagers help control insect populations, and most people welcome their presence.
Habitat and conservation

Usually seen high in trees in pine-oak forests, bottomland deciduous woodlands, and parks. Often seen near water (as along creeks or rivers). Like other birds that frequent the tops of trees, learn to recognize their songs and calls first, then go to likely habitat in summer, and listen.

Foods

Forages on bees, wasps, and other insects, which it often catches in flight, as well as some berries and other fruits. Reported to come to feeders with fruit available. When hunting bees and wasps, the tanager whacks the insect against a branch to subdue it and to eliminate the stinger. With the parent wasps gone, the tanager turns to the wasp nest, breaks it open, and eats the grublike larvae. Fruits eaten in Missouri include mulberries, blackberries, and pokeweed, but during winters in the tropics they may eat citrus fruits, bananas, and custard apples.

Distribution in Missouri

Statewide. Most common in the southern two-thirds of the state.

Status

Common summer resident in southern Missouri, uncommon in northern Missouri. This and other North American birds in the genus Piranga used to be considered true tanagers, in the same family (Thraupidae) as other true tanagers common in the Neotropics. But scientists have determined they are more closely related to cardinals, so now they are placed in the Cardinalidae.

Life cycle

Present in Missouri May through the first week of October. Using dried grasses and other nonwoody plant materials, the female builds a bulky cup nest in tree branches that usually overlook an open area below (a creek, a road, an opening in the woods). Clutches comprise 3 or 4 eggs, which are incubated 11–12 days. Young remain in the nest another 8–12 days after hatching. There can be 1 or 2 broods. The winter range extends from southern Mexico well into South America, and they fly across the Gulf of Mexico to get there. A summer tanager can live to be at least 7 years old.

Human connections

One of the most colorful birds in North America, the summer tanager is a great reason for becoming a bird watcher. Its rich, lazy song adds to the allure. An old nickname for this tanager is “summer redbird,” which distinguished this summer-resident species from the “winter redbird” (the northern cardinal), which is present year-round.

Ecosystem connections

Birds that eat insects help control the numbers of them. Birds that eat fruits often distribute the seeds from the parent plant, aiding dispersal of those species. Brown-headed cowbirds commonly parasitize summer tanagers, laying their eggs in the tanagers’ nests, to the detriment of the tanagers’ own young. Summer tanagers are known to chase cowbirds away from their nesting locations.