Scarlet tanager

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Scarlet tanager
Adult male
Scientific classification edit
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Passeriformes
Family: Cardinalidae
Genus: Piranga
P. olivacea
Binomial name
Piranga olivacea
(Gmelin, 1789)
Piranga olivacea map.svg
Note: distribution on Hispaniola and Puerto Rico not shown

Piranga erythromelas

Adult female Scarlet Tanager, showcasing the yellow-olive plumage typical of the gender. Photographed in Ottawa, Ontario.

The scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea) is a medium-sized American songbird. Until recently, it was placed in the tanager family (Thraupidae), but it and other members of its genus are now classified as belonging to the cardinal family (Cardinalidae).[2] The species' plumage and vocalizations are similar to other members of the cardinal family, although the Piranga species lacks the thick conical bill (well suited to seed and insect eating) that many cardinals possess. The species resides in thick deciduous woodlands and suburbs.


The genus name Piranga is from Tupi Tijepiranga, the name for an unknown small bird, and the specific olivacea is from New Latin olivaceus, "olive-green".[3]


Male moulting to his duller feathers during autumn

The scarlet tanager, a mid-sized passerine, is marginally the smallest of the four species of Piranga that breed north of the Mexican border. It can weigh from 23.5 to 38 g (0.83 to 1.34 oz), with an average of 25 g (0.88 oz) during breeding and an average of 35 g (1.2 oz) at the beginning of migration. Scarlet tanagers can range in length from 16 to 19 cm (6.3 to 7.5 in) and from 25 to 30 cm (9.8 to 11.8 in) in wingspan.[4] Adults of both sexes have pale, horn-colored, fairly stout, and smooth-textured bills. Adult males are crimson-red with black wings and tail. The male's coloration is intense and deeply red, similar but deeper in shade than the males of two occasionally co-existing relatives, the northern cardinal and the summer tanager, both which lack black wings. Females are yellowish on the underparts and olive on top, with yellow-olive-toned wings and tail. The adult male's winter plumage is similar to the female's, but the wings and tail remain darker. Young males briefly show a more complex, variegated plumage intermediate between adult males and females.

Female - South Padre Island, Texas

The somewhat confusing specific epithet olivacea ("the olive-colored one") was based on a female or immature specimen rather than erythromelas ("the red-and-black one"), which authors attempted to ascribe to the species throughout the 19th century (older scientific names always takes precedence, however).

Female, immature, and nonbreeding males may be distinguished from the same ages and sexes in summer tanagers, which are more brownish overall, and western tanagers, which always have bold white bars and more yellowish undersides than scarlet tanagers. The song of the scarlet tanager sounds somewhat like a hoarser version of the American robin's and is only slightly dissimilar from the songs of the summer and western tanagers. The call of the scarlet tanager is an immediately distinctive chip-burr or chip-churr, which is very different from the pit-i-tuck of the summer tanager and the softer, rolled pri-tic or prit-i-tic of western tanager.[5]


Scarlet tanagers eat ripe fruit when available, occasionally including ones, such as this orange half, that are set out by humans

Their breeding habitat is large stretches of deciduous forest, especially with oaks, across eastern North America. They can occur, with varying degrees of success, in young successional woodlands and occasionally in extensive plantings of shade trees in suburban areas, parks, and cemeteries. For a viable breeding population, at least 10 to 12 hectares of forest are required.[6][7] In winter, scarlet tanagers occur in the montane forest of the Andean foothills. Scarlet tanagers migrate to northwestern South America, passing through Central America around April, and again around October.[8] They begin arriving in the breeding grounds in numbers by about May and already start to move south again in midsummer; by early October, they are all on their way south.[9][10] The bird is an extremely rare vagrant to Western Europe.

Call of the scarlet tanager

Scarlet tanagers are often out of sight, foraging high in trees, sometimes flying out to catch insects in flight and then returning to the same general perch, in a hunting style known as "sallying". Sometimes, however, they also capture their prey on the forest floor. They eat mainly insects, but opportunistically consume fruit when plentiful. Any flying variety of insect can readily be taken when common, such as bees, wasps, hornets, ants, and sawflies; moths and butterflies; beetles; flies; cicadas, leafhoppers, spittlebugs, treehoppers, plant lice, and scale insects; termites; grasshoppers and locusts; dragonflies; and dobsonflies. Scarlet tanagers also take snails, earthworms, and spiders. While summer tanagers are famous for this feeding method, when capturing bees, wasps, and hornets, scarlet tanagers also rake the prey against a branch to remove their stingers before consumption.[11] Plant components of their diet include a wide variety of fruits that are eaten mainly when insect population are low: blackberries (Rubus allegheniensis), raspberries (R. ideaus), huckleberries (Gaylussacia sp.), juneberries and serviceberries (Amelanchier spp.), mulberries (Morus rubra), strawberries (Fragaria virginiana), and chokeberries (Aronia melanocarpa).[12][13]


Male scarlet tanagers reach their breeding ground from mid-May to early June. Females generally arrive several days to a week later. Nest building and egg laying both occur usually in less than two weeks after the adults arrive. The clutch is usually four eggs, occasionally from three to five and exceptionally from one to six eggs may be laid. The eggs are a light blue color, often with a slight greenish or whitish tinge. Incubation lasts for 11 to 14 days. Hatching and fledging are both reached at different points in summer depending on how far north the tanagers are breeding, from June-early July in the southern parts of its breeding range to as late as August or even early September in the northernmost part of its range.[5] The average weight at hatching is 3.97 g (0.140 oz), with the nestlings increasing their weight to 20–22 g (0.71–0.78 oz) by 10 days, or 70% of the parent's weight. The young leave the nest by 9–12 days of age and fly capably by the time they are a few weeks old. If the nesting attempt is disturbed, scarlet tanagers apparently are unable to attempt a second brood, as several other passerines can. In a study of 16 nests in Michigan, 50% were successful in producing one or more fledglings.[14] In western New York, fledgling success increased from 22% in scattered patches of woods to as high as 64% in extensive, undisturbed hardwood forest.[7]

Threats and status[edit]

Stuffed scarlet tanager from 1860s, St. Barthélemy

Exposure and starvation can occasionally kill scarlet tanagers, especially when exceptionally cold or wet weather hits eastern North America. They often die from collisions with man-made objects including TV and radio towers, buildings and cars.[15] Beyond failure due to brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) (see below), predation is the primary direct cause of nesting failures. In one study, 69–78% of nests were preyed upon.[16] Recorded nest predators are primarily avian like blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata), common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) and American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos), although others such as squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons (Procyon lotor), and snakes probably take a heavy toll, as well as an occasional unlucky fledgling taken by domestic cats (Felis catus). Raptorial birds hunt and kill many scarlet tanagers from fledgling throughout their adult lives, including all three North American Accipiter species, merlins (Falco columbarius), eastern screech owls (Megascops asio), barred owls (Strix varia), long-eared owls (Asio otus), and short-eared owls (Asio flammeus).[5][17][18]

These birds do best in the forest interior, where they are less exposed to predators and brood parasitism by the brown-headed cowbird. The cowbird lays its eggs in most any other passerine's nest and the young often outcompete the young of the host bird and may cause failure and starvation. Some birds have evolved strategies to deal with cowbird parasitism, but the scarlet tanager, being a bird that evolved to breed in forest interior and not previously exposed to this, are helpless victims to brood parasitism. Where forest fragmentation occurs, which is quite widespread, the scarlet tanager suffers high rates of predation and brood parasitism in small forest plots and is often absent completely from plots less than a minimum size. Their nests are typically built on horizontal tree branches. Specifically, their numbers are declining in some areas due to habitat fragmentation, but on a global scale, tanagers are a plentiful species. Thus, the IUCN classifies the scarlet tanager as being of least concern.


  1. ^ BirdLife International (2016). "Piranga olivacea". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2016: e.T22722466A94767758. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-3.RLTS.T22722466A94767758.en. Retrieved 11 November 2021.
  2. ^ Remsen, J. V., Jr., C.D. Cadena, A. Jaramillo, M. Nores, J.F. Pacheco, M.B. Robbins, T.S. Schulenberg, F.G. Stiles, D.F. Stotz, and K.J. Zimmer. (2009-04-02). A classification of the bird species of South America Archived 2009-03-02 at the Wayback Machine. American Ornithologists' Union.
  3. ^ Jobling, James A. (2010). The Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names. London, United Kingdom: Christopher Helm. pp. 281, 308. ISBN 978-1-4081-2501-4.
  4. ^ 7.del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Christie, D.A. (2011). Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 16: Tanagers to New World Blackbirds. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  5. ^ a b c Mowbray, Thomas B. (1999). Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online:
  6. ^ Robbins, C.S., D.K. Dawson, and B.A. Dowell (1989). Habitat area requirements of breeding forest birds of the Middle Atlantic states. Wildl. Monogr. 103.
  7. ^ a b Roberts, C. and C.J. Norment (1999). Effects of plot size and habitat characteristics on breeding success of Scarlet Tanagers. Auk 116:73-82.
  8. ^ Herrera, Néstor; Rivera, Roberto; Ibarra Portillo, Ricardo & Rodríoguez, Wilfredo (2006): Nuevos registros para la avifauna de El Salvador. ["New records for the avifauna of El Salvador"]. Boletín de la Sociedad Antioqueña de Ornitología 16(2): 1–19. [Spanish with English abstract] PDF fulltext
  9. ^ Henninger, W.F. (1906). "A preliminary list of the birds of Seneca County, Ohio" (PDF). Wilson Bulletin. 18 (2): 47–60.
  10. ^ Ohio Ornithological Society (2004): Annotated Ohio state checklist Archived 2004-07-18 at the Wayback Machine.
  11. ^ Grant, C. (1945). Drone bees selected by birds. Condor, 261-263.
  12. ^ E.g. of Gumbo-limbo (Bursera simaruba). Trophis racemosa (Moraceae), and especially of Cymbopetalum mayanum (Annonaceae): Foster, Mercedes S. (2007). "The potential of fruiting trees to enhance converted habitats for migrating birds in southern Mexico". Bird Conservation International. 17: 45–61. doi:10.1017/S0959270906000554.
  13. ^ Mcatee, W.L. (1926). The relation of birds to woodlots in New York State. Roosevelt Wildlife Bulletin no. 4.
  14. ^ Prescott, K.W. (1965). "The Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea)." N.J. State Mus. Invest. no. 2.
  15. ^ Stevenson, H.M. and B.H. Anderson. (1994). The birdlife of Florida. Univ. Press of Florida, Gainesville.
  16. ^ Brawn, J. D.; Robinson, S. K. (1996). "Source-sink population dynamics may complicate the interpretation of long-term census data". Ecology. 77 (1): 3–12. doi:10.2307/2265649. JSTOR 2265649.
  17. ^ Hamerstrom Jr, F.N., & Hamerstrom, F. (1951). "Food of young raptors on the Edwin S. George Reserve." The Wilson Bulletin 16-25.
  18. ^ Meng, H. (1959). "Food habits of nesting Cooper's Hawks and Goshawks in New York and Pennsylvania." The Wilson Bulletin 169-174.

External links[edit]

Further reading[edit]


  • Mowbray, T. B. 1999. Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea). In The Birds of North America, No. 479 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.


  • Hames RS. Ph.D. (2001). Habitat fragmentation and forest birds: Effects at multiple scales. Cornell University, United States – New York.
  • Hudon J. Ph.D. (1989). Keto-carotenoid usage and evolutionary dynamics in birds. The University of Connecticut, United States – Connecticut.
  • Prescott KW. Ph.D. (1950). A LIFE HISTORY STUDY OF THE SCARLET TANAGER (PIRANGA OLIVACEA). University of Michigan, United States – Michigan.
  • Shy E. Ph.D. (1982). EVOLUTION OF SONGS IN NORTH AMERICAN TANAGERS (THRAUPINAE: PIRANGA). Wayne State University, United States – Michigan.
  • Villard M-A. Ph.D. (1991). Spatio-temporal dynamics of forest bird patch populations in agricultural landscapes. Carleton University (Canada), Canada.
  • Weakland CA. Ph.D. (2000). Effects of diameter-limit and two-age timber harvesting on songbird populations on an industrial forest in central West Virginia. West Virginia University, United States – West Virginia.


  • Alderton, RE (1977). "Scarlet Tanager in the Isles of Scilly". British Birds. 70 (7): 300–301.
  • Baylor, LM (1971). "Scarlet Tanager at Rapid City". South Dakota Bird Notes. 23: 4.
  • Cooper, RJ; Dodge, KM; Martinat, PJ; Donahoe, SB; Whitmore, RC (1990). "Effect of Diflubenzuron Application on Eastern Deciduous Forest Birds". Journal of Wildlife Management. 54 (3): 486–493. doi:10.2307/3809663. JSTOR 3809663.
  • Crawford, HS; Hooper, RG; Titterington, RW (1981). "Song Bird Population Response to Silvicultural Practices in Central Appalachian USA Hardwoods". Journal of Wildlife Management. 45 (3): 680–692. doi:10.2307/3808701. JSTOR 3808701.
  • Dettmers, R; Bart, J (1999). "A GIS modeling method applied to predicting forest songbird habitat". Ecological Applications. 9 (1): 152–163. doi:10.1890/1051-0761(1999)009[0152:agmmat];2.
  • Dettmers, R; Buehler, DA; Franzreb, KE (2002). "Testing habitat-relationship models for forest birds of the southeastern United States". Journal of Wildlife Management. 66 (2): 417–424. doi:10.2307/3803174. JSTOR 3803174.
  • Dobbs, M (1995). "Late scarlet tanager sighting in Clarke County". Oriole. 60: 4.
  • Donovan, TM; Flather, CH (2002). "Relationships among North American songbird trends, habitat fragmentation, and landscape occupancy". Ecological Applications. 12 (2): 364–374. doi:10.2307/3060948. JSTOR 3060948.
  • Duncan, S (1976). "Anting by a Scarlet Tanager and 2 Blue Jays in Massachusetts". Bird-Banding. 47 (1): 1. doi:10.2307/4512195. JSTOR 4512195.
  • Eckert, KR (1971). "Scarlet Tanager in Late November". Loon. 43: 4.
  • Ellis, CJ (1976). "Syringeal Histology Part 5 Thraupidae Yellow-Rumped Tanager Ramphocelus-Icteronotus and Scarlet Tanager Piranga-Olivacea". Iowa State Journal of Research. 50 (4): 357–362.
  • Ferguson, RS (1981). "Summer Birds of the Northwest Angle Provincial Forest and Adjacent Southeastern Manitoba Canada". Syllogeus. 31: 1–23.
  • Fraser, GS; Stutchbury, BJM (2004). "Area-sensitive forest birds move extensively among forest patches". Biological Conservation. 118 (3): 377–387. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2003.06.006.
  • Garrett, KL; Wilson, JC (2003). "Report of the California Bird Records Committee: 2001 records". Western Birds. 34 (1): 15–41.
  • Gobris, NM; Yong, W (1993). "Breeding records of worm-eating Warbler and scarlet tanager from Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge". Oriole. 58 (1–4): 4–6.
  • Goodwin, AG (1984). "Scarlet Tanager Piranga-Olivacea in Scilly Uk". British Birds. 77 (10): 490–491.
  • Grand, J; Cushman, SA (2003). "A multi-scale analysis of species-environment relationships: Breeding birds in a pitch pine-scrub oak (Pinus rigida-Quercus ilicifolia) community". Biological Conservation. 112 (3): 307–317. doi:10.1016/s0006-3207(02)00323-3.
  • Greenberg, CH; Lanham, JD (2001). "Breeding bird assemblages of hurricane-created gaps and adjacent closed canopy forest in the southern Appalachians". Forest Ecology and Management. 154 (1–2): 251–260. doi:10.1016/s0378-1127(00)00631-9.
  • Hames, RS; Rosenberg, KV; Lowe, JD; Barker, SE; Dhondt, AA (2002). "Effects of forest fragmentation on Tanager and thrush species in eastern and western North America". Studies in Avian Biology. 25: 81–91.
  • Hames, RS; Rosenberg, KV; Lowe, JD; Dhondt, AA (2001). "Site reoccupation in fragmented landscapes: Testing predictions of metapopulation theory". Journal of Animal Ecology. 70 (2): 182–190. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2656.2001.00482.x.
  • Hanowski, J; Danz, N; Lind, J; Niemi, G (2003). "Breeding bird response to riparian forest harvest and harvest equipment". Forest Ecology and Management. 174 (1–3): 315–328. doi:10.1016/s0378-1127(02)00040-3.
  • Holding, J (1983). "SCARLET TANAGER IN CORNWALL". British Birds. 76 (12): 581–582.
  • Holmes, RT (1986). "Foraging Patterns of Forest Birds Male-Female Differences". Wilson Bulletin. 98 (2): 196–213.
  • Holmes, RT; Sherry, TW; Sturges, FW (1986). "Bird Community Dynamics in a Temperate Deciduous Forest Long-Term Trends at Hubbard Brook New-Hampshire USA". Ecological Monographs. 56 (3): 201–220. doi:10.2307/2937074. JSTOR 2937074.
  • Hudon, J (1991). "Unusual Carotenoid Use by the Western Tanager Piranga-Ludoviciana and Its Evolutionary Implications". Canadian Journal of Zoology. 69 (9): 2311–2320. doi:10.1139/z91-325.
  • Jubb, GLJ; Cunningham, HNJ (1976). "Birds Associated with Grapes in Erie County Pennsylvania USA". American Journal of Enology and Viticulture. 27 (4): 161–162.
  • Maurer, BA; Whitmore, RC (1981). "Foraging of 5 Bird Species in 2 Forests with Different Vegetation Structure". Wilson Bulletin. 93 (4): 478–490.
  • Mellow, BK (1983). "SCARLET TANAGER IN CORNWALL". British Birds. 76 (12): 580–581.
  • Moore, T (1986). "A Late Scarlet Tanager in North Fulton County Georgia USA". Oriole. 51: 4.
  • Murray, NL; Stauffer, DF (1995). "Nongame bird use of habitat in central Appalachian riparian forests". Journal of Wildlife Management. 59 (1): 78–88. doi:10.2307/3809118. JSTOR 3809118.
  • Olafsson, E (1993). "Rare and vagrant birds in Iceland: Buntings, vireos and icterids". Natturufraedingurinn. 63 (1–2): 87–108.
  • Plenge, MA; Parker, TA; III; Hughes, RA; O'Neill, JP (1989). "Additional Notes on the Distribution of Birds in West-Central Peru". Gerfaut. 79 (1–4): 55–68.
  • Prather, JW; Smith, KG (2003). "Effects of tornado damage on forest bird populations in the Arkansas ozarks". Southwestern Naturalist. 48 (2): 292–297. doi:10.1894/0038-4909(2003)048<0292:eotdof>;2.
  • Prescott, KW (1972). "Late Scarlet Tanager Recorded". Inland Bird Banding News. 44: 6.
  • Rivera, JHV; McShea, WJ; Rappole, JH (2003). "Comparison of breeding and postbreeding movements and habitat requirements for the Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea) in Virginia". Auk. 120 (3): 632–644. doi:10.1642/0004-8038(2003)120[0632:cobapm];2.
  • Roberts, C; Norment, CJ (1999). "Effects of plot size and habitat characteristics on breeding success of scarlet tanagers". Auk. 116 (1): 73–82. doi:10.2307/4089455. JSTOR 4089455.
  • Robinson, SK; Holmes, RT (1982). "Foraging Behavior of Forest Birds the Relationships among Search Tactics Diet and Habitat Structure". Ecology. 63 (6): 1918–1931. doi:10.2307/1940130. JSTOR 1940130.
  • Rodewald, AD (2004). "Nest-searching cues and studies of nest-site selection and nesting success". Journal of Field Ornithology. 75 (1): 31–39. doi:10.1648/0273-8570-75.1.31. S2CID 85055569.
  • Sample, BE; Cooper, RJ; Whitmore, RC (1993). "Dietary Shifts among Songbirds from a Diflubenzuron-Treated Forest" (PDF). Condor. 95 (3): 616–624. doi:10.2307/1369605. JSTOR 1369605.
  • Sewell, J (1995). "Late fall scarlet tanager sighting in Forsyth County". Oriole. 60 (4): 90–92.
  • Shy, E (1984). "Habitat Shift and Geographical Variation in North American Tanagers Thraupinae Piranga". Oecologia. 63 (2): 281–285. Bibcode:1984Oecol..63..281S. doi:10.1007/bf00379890. PMID 28311026. S2CID 7436886.
  • Shy, E (1984). "The Structure of Song and Its Geographical Variation in the Scarlet Tanager Piranga-Olivacea". American Midland Naturalist. 112 (1): 119–130. doi:10.2307/2425465. JSTOR 2425465.
  • Stotz, DF; Bierregaard, RO; Cohn-Haft, M; Petermann, P; Smith, J; Whittaker, A; Wilson, SV (1992). "The Status of North American Migrants in Central Amazonian Brazil". Condor. 94 (3): 608–621. doi:10.2307/1369246. JSTOR 1369246.
  • Stutchbury, BJM; Capuano, B; Fraser, GS (2005). "Avian frugivory on a gap-specialist, the red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa)". Wilson Bulletin. 117 (4): 336–340. doi:10.1676/04-115.1. S2CID 85944076.
  • Villard, M-A; Merriam, G; Maurer, BA (1995). "Dynamics in subdivided populations of neotropical migratory birds in a fragmented temperate forest". Ecology. 76 (1): 27–40. doi:10.2307/1940629. JSTOR 1940629.
  • Walley, WJ (1989). "Breeding of the Scarlet Tanager Piranga-Olivacea in Western Manitoba Canada". Canadian Field-Naturalist. 103 (4): 572–576.
  • Williams, E (1968). "Birds About Milbank South-Dakota USA Scarlet Tanager Avocets Lark Bunting and Redstarts". South Dakota Bird Notes. 22: 4.
  • Zumeta, DC; Holmes, RT (1978). "Habitat Shift and Roadside Mortality of Scarlet Tanagers During a Cold Wet New-England Spring". Wilson Bulletin. 90 (4): 575–586.