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A photo of a Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea), male
Scarlet Tanager, Male

Scarlet Tanager

Piranga olivacea

The Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea) is a medium-sized songbird of striking appearance. The male is adorned in a vibrant crimson-red with contrasting black wings and tail, while the female is clothed in more subdued yellow-olive plumage with similarly toned wings and tail. These birds exhibit sexual dimorphism, with males undergoing a transformation to a duller plumage outside of the breeding season, resembling the females but retaining darker wings and tail.

Identification Tips

Adult males are unmistakable with their bright red bodies and black wings and tail. Females and non-breeding males can be identified by their pale, horn-colored bills and yellowish underparts with olive upperparts. Juvenile males may show a patchwork of red and olive before acquiring their adult plumage.

Habitat

Scarlet Tanagers favor large expanses of deciduous forests, particularly those dominated by oak trees. They can also adapt to younger woodlands and suburban areas with ample tree cover.

Distribution

These birds breed across the eastern parts of North America and migrate to the northwestern regions of South America, with a passage through Central America. They are rare vagrants to Western Europe.

Behaviour

Scarlet Tanagers are often elusive, foraging high in the treetops. They employ a "sallying" technique to catch insects in flight, returning to the same perch. They may also forage on the forest floor and are known to consume fruit, especially when insects are scarce.

Song & Calls

The male's song is reminiscent of an American robin's but hoarser. Their call is a distinctive chip-burr or chip-churr, setting them apart from similar species.

Breeding

Males arrive at the breeding grounds from mid-May, with females following shortly after. Nest building and egg laying occur rapidly, with clutches typically consisting of four light blue eggs. Incubation lasts 11 to 14 days, and fledglings leave the nest 9 to 12 days after hatching.

Similar Species

The Summer Tanager and Western Tanager may be confused with the Scarlet Tanager. However, the Summer Tanager is more brownish, and the Western Tanager has bold white wing bars and a more yellowish underside.

Diet and Feeding

Scarlet Tanagers primarily feed on insects, including bees, wasps, and beetles, and will consume a variety of fruits such as blackberries and mulberries when insects are less available.

Conservation Status

Despite local declines due to habitat fragmentation, the Scarlet Tanager is classified as Least Concern by the IUCN, thanks to its overall plentiful numbers. However, they are sensitive to forest fragmentation, which increases their exposure to predators and brood parasitism by brown-headed cowbirds.

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