The male Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea) is a stunning bird in spring and summer. The incandescent red feathers covering most of its body contrast sharply with the glossy black of its wings and tail. Although this bird is a common species in deciduous forests in our region, many people have never seen one. This may be thought surprising given the “black-winged red bird’s” bright colors, but its habit of staying in the forest canopy for most of the summer tends to conceal it from view.
Females have olive-green plumage in place of the male’s red, making them
still harder to see. But the males—did I mention how bright they are? If you think a cardinal is bright red, think again. In certain kinds of light, male Scarlet Tanagers look positively luminous, as if lit from within.
Given its habit of staying out of sight in the tops of trees, this bird’s vocalizations are especially useful in helping one to get a look at it. A singing Scarlet Tanager typically gives a series of 3-5 phrases quite similar in pitch and pattern to a robin’s song, but uttered with a distinctive burry quality “like a robin with a sore throat.” The call note is a quiet, usually two-part sound, with the first note higher in pitch and shorter than the second, often rendered as “chick-burrr.” Sometimes only the first “chick” note is given.
Scarlet Tanagers need large, unfragmented blocks of deciduous forest to nest in, and the creation of openings in these forests (in our area largely caused by development) has been linked to population declines in this and other interior-forest bird species. Another threat to this species is deforestation on its wintering grounds in northern and western South America.
In fall, as they get ready to migrate far to our south for the winter, males molt into an olive-green and black plumage very like that of the females. When they are only part way through this process, the remaining red feathers are interspersed with the new green ones, creating a chaotic-looking but striking patchwork of premature Christmas colors.
Scarlet Tanagers are sensitive to habitat fragmentation. Help this species by protecting larger tracts of land and expanding deciduous and mixed evergreen habitats.