Hint of tropics arrives in region’s mountains with scarlet tanagers

Photo by Vincent Simard from Pixabay • Considering the spectacular plumage of a male scarlet tanager, it’s a pity that this bird is more often heard than seen due to its fondness for living in the woodland canopy.

In late April and early May, once the oaks, the maples, the poplars and other tall deciduous trees begin spreading out new green leaves to create a concealing woodland canopy, a familiar song can be heard coming from the treetops.
Upon first hearing it, listeners might mistake the hidden singer for an American robin. Listen a little closer, however, and the song sounds as if it is being delivered by a hoarse robin with a sore throat.

The producer of the hoarse but melodic song is a scarlet tanager, one of the most showy birds of Eastern woodlands from April to early October.
The scarlet tanager also has an easily recognized call note, best described as a distinctive “chip-burr” or “chip-churr.”

It was the distinctive “chip burr” that first alerted me to the presence of a scarlet tanager during a recent trip to Holston Mountain in Carter County, Tennessee. I was taking part with Chris Soto and Rob Armisted in the recent Spring Bird Count conducted by the Elizabethton Bird Club.

The scarlet tanager was a target bird, which we managed to find, along with other targeted birds such as ruffed grouse, dark-eyed junco and chestnut-sided warbler.
Like the warblers, vireos, flycatchers and other songbirds, the scarlet tanager is migratory. They spend the winter months in the tropical forests of Central and South America. The scarlet tanager is better attired than most birds to provide us a glimpse of what life must be like in the tropical rain forests, which are a riot of color and sound.

Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter
A male scarlet tanager brightens shadowy woodlands with a flash of tropical colors yet remains mostly inconspicuous in the forest canopy.

Observing this dazzling bird, which put on a prolonged show for us, reminded me how it takes only one sighting to sear the vision of this vibrant bird onto our retinas, as well as into our memories.

The scarlet ranager boasts a brilliant plumage of crimson red paired with black wings and tail. Of course, this is the male. The female tanager makes no real claim to the common name with her comparatively drab greenish plumage. However, the scientific name, Piranga olivacea, gives a nod to the olive-green plumage of females, young males and even adult males when molting their feathers.
Although once nominated as a candidate for state bird by the school children of Minnesota, the scarlet tanager ultimately failed to gain the designation. Instead, as perhaps is fitting for the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” the common loon represents Minnesota as official state bird.

I usually have a few scarlet tanagers in residence around my home during the summer months.

Worldwide, there have traditionally been about 240 species of tanagers. Experts have changed some of the ways they classify tanagers, so that figure is no longer set in stone. Tanagers are a New World family of birds, concentrated mainly in the tropics.
The scarlet tanager and an all-red relative, the summer tanager, are native of the eastern half of the continent, replaced by Western tanagers and hepatic tanagers in the western states. During a visit to Salt Lake City in Utah in 2006 I saw several Western tanagers.

Some of the world’s other tanagers are known by extremely descriptive names, including flame-colored tanager, green-headed tanager, golden-chevroned tanager, azure-shouldered tanager, fawn-breasted tanager, saffron-crowned Tanager, Metallic-green Tanager, turquoise tanager, scarlet-bellied mountain tanager and diademed tanager.

Scientists, who have to occupy themselves, have recently given fresh consideration to the relationship of many tanagers to the other birds of the world. As a result, many of the North American tanagers are now closely allied with such birds as Northern cardinals and more remote from tropical tanagers.


The scarlet tanager is not typically a feeder visitor, but these birds can be lured closer with orange slices placed in special feeders or simply spiked onto the branches of backyard trees. As an added bonus, orange slices can also attract birds such as Baltimore orioles and gray catbirds.

Fond of fruit, the scarlet tanager incorporates various berries into its diet. Landscape around your home with fruit-bearing trees such as mulberry, serviceberry and wild cherry to make your yard more inviting to these elusive bird.

Yes, the scarlet tanager is more often heard than seen, but it is a bird worth seeking out. A sighting of one will amaze you.


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