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Photo Credit: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

SCIENTIFIC NAME: Piranga olivacea


DESCRIPTION: The scarlet tanager is one of the most brilliantly colored North American songbirds.  Scarlet tanagers are unusual among the 230 species of the neotropical tanager family because they have a seasonal change in plumage. The male in breeding plumage is a brilliant scarlet color with black wings and tail. The female is an overall olive green color.  When the male is not in breeding plumage, his colors mimic the olive green of the female, yet retain the black wings.

DISTRIBUTION: Scarlet tanagers breed from extreme southeastern Canada to the east-central U.S.  They mainly spend the winter in South America from Columbia to Bolivia.

HABITAT: Scarlet tanagers prefer dense canopied, mature woodlands, especially oak and pine forest.

FEEDING HABITS:  Though brightly colored, scarlet tanagers can sometimes be difficult to see in the forest. Tanagers often remain motionless for long periods, seeking to feed on such items as beetles and caterpillars that are high in the forest canopy.  At other times, they catch bees and wasps using the same swooping techniques as the flycatchers (Empidonax sp). They may also be seen feeding on fruits and berries, which augment their main summer diet of insects.

LIFE HISTORY AND ECOLOGY:  Scarlet tanagers begin their nocturnal spring migration toward North America by crossing Central America and the Gulf of Mexico, after wintering in South America.  Males arrive first and begin singing short phrases that sound similar to the American robin’s song, ending with an additional “throaty burrr.”  The males sing and perform courtship displays from lower tree branches, holding drooped wings slightly away from the body, with necks elongated to show their brilliant scarlet color, as the female looks on from above.  Shallow nests, constructed on horizontal limbs, are usually formed of twigs and lined with grasses.  Females typically lay three to four greenish, brown-spotted eggs that are incubated and hatched in approximately 15 days.  Both parents care for the young until fledged in another two weeks.        


Collins, Henry Hill, 1981. Harper and Row’s Complete Guide to North American Wildlife, Eastern Edition, Harper and Row Publishing, New York, NY.  714 pages.  

Knopf, Alfred A., 1977.  Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds.

Eastern Region.  Chanticleer Press, Inc. New York, NY.  784 pages.

AUTHOR: Tracy Nelson, Wildlife Biologist, Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries

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