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Summer Tanager

November 15, 2023

The Summer Tanager (Piranga rubra) is a striking and melodious songbird that has captivated birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts alike. Known for their vibrant plumage and enchanting song, these birds are a symbol of the warm, sunny days of summer. In this blog, we'll take an in-depth look at the Summer Tanager, exploring their physical characteristics, breeding habits, migration patterns, and more. Join us as we delve into the captivating world of this beautiful songbird.

Currently, the Summer Tanager is listed as a species of Least Concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), indicating that it is not facing any immediate threats to its survival. However, habitat loss due to deforestation and fragmentation, particularly on their wintering grounds, could potentially impact their populations in the future.

Additionally, Summer Tanagers, like many other migratory birds, face threats during migration, such as collisions with buildings and other human-made structures, predation, and exhaustion. Efforts to protect and conserve their habitats and promote bird-friendly practices can help ensure the continued survival of this enchanting species.

Related: Learn How to ID Your Favorite Birds

How to ID a Summer Tanager

Summer Tanagers are medium-sized passerines, measuring approximately 6.3-7.5 inches (16-19 cm) in length and weighing around 1-1.1 ounces (28-31 grams). They have a stout, slightly rounded body with a relatively large head, short neck, and medium-length tail. Their bill is thick and conical, well-suited for their predominantly insectivorous diet.

Adult male Summer Tanagers boast a brilliant red plumage, which can vary from a deep scarlet to a bright crimson, depending on the individual and lighting conditions. Females and immature males, on the other hand, exhibit a duller yellow-green plumage, often with a touch of reddish-orange on their wings and tails.

1. Size and Shape

Here are a few key characteristics that can help you identify the Summer Tanager by its wing span and weight:

  • Length: 6.3-7.5 inches (16-19 cm)
  • Weight: 1-1.1 ounces (28-31 grams)
  • Wingspan: 28 to 30 cm

2. Color Pattern

The coloration of Summer Tanagers is sexually dimorphic, meaning that males and females exhibit different plumage colors. This distinction makes it relatively easy to identify the sex of an individual bird.

  1. Adult Males: Adult male Summer Tanagers boast a brilliant red plumage, which can range from deep scarlet to bright crimson. This vibrant coloration serves as an attractive feature to females during the breeding season and also helps males establish and defend their territories. The red plumage may also provide some degree of camouflage when the birds are foraging among the foliage of deciduous trees.
  2. Females and Immature Males: Female Summer Tanagers and immature males (first-year males) exhibit a duller yellow-green plumage. This coloration provides excellent camouflage in the foliage of their wooded habitats, helping them avoid predation. Immature males will gradually develop their red plumage during their first year, transitioning to the striking red coloration of adult males.

3. Behavior

Summer Tanagers are generally solitary birds, except during the breeding season when they form monogamous pairs. They are active during the day, primarily foraging in the canopy of tall trees, where they search for insects and fruit.

Their vocalizations are one of their most enchanting attributes. The male's song is a series of melodious phrases, often described as "robin-like" but more musical and with a more leisurely pace. Both males and females produce various calls, such as a soft "pik" or "pit-ti-tuk" sound, often used to maintain contact with each other.

Summer Tanagers primarily feed on insects, with a particular fondness for bees and wasps. They have a unique way of dealing with these stinging insects, catching them in flight and then striking them against a branch to remove the stinger before consuming them. In addition to insects, they also eat a variety of fruits and berries, particularly during migration and the winter months.

The breeding season for Summer Tanagers typically begins in late April or early May, depending on their location. Males establish and defend territories, attracting females with their melodic songs. Once a pair is formed, the female takes the lead in selecting a nest site and constructing the nest.

The nest is usually built in the fork of a tree branch, at heights ranging from 10-50 feet (3-15 meters) above the ground. It is composed of twigs, grass, and other plant materials, often lined with rootlets, moss, or leaves.

Female Summer Tanagers lay 3-5 eggs, which are incubated for approximately 12-14 days. After hatching, the nestlings are dependent on their parents for food and protection for about 9-11 days, until they fledge and leave the nest. During this period, both the male and female participate in feeding and caring for the young. The fledglings remain close to their parents for a few more weeks, gradually becoming more independent as they learn to forage and fend for themselves.

4. Habitat

Summer Tanagers breed across the southeastern United States, extending from the southern parts of New Mexico and Arizona in the west to the Atlantic coast in the east. They inhabit deciduous and mixed woodlands, particularly in areas with tall, mature trees such as oak and hickory. These birds can also be found in wooded riparian habitats, where they have access to both water and dense vegetation.

During the non-breeding season, Summer Tanagers migrate to Central and South America, where they spend the winter in tropical forests and lowland woodlands from Mexico to western Panama and the Amazon Basin.

Summer Tanagers are long-distance migrants, traveling between their breeding grounds in the southeastern United States and their wintering habitats in Central and South America. Migration typically begins in August or September, with birds departing their breeding territories and heading southward.

During migration, Summer Tanagers often join mixed-species flocks, feeding on fruit and insects to fuel their journey. They travel mainly at night, taking advantage of the cooler temperatures and reduced risk of predation. By late October or early November, most individuals have arrived at their wintering grounds, where they will remain until the following spring.

Related: Black-capped Chickadees: ID and Overview

Video on the Summer Tanagers

"The rose-red male Summer Tanager is the only completely red bird in North America — the male Northern Cardinal has a black mask; the closely related Scarlet Tanager has black wings; and the duller-red Hepatic Tanager has grayish flanks and cheek patches. The female Summer Tanager is a warm orangish-yellow, and first-spring males have an interesting intermediate plumage patched with yellow and red.  

This chunky, thick-billed songbird is surprisingly difficult to spot in the treetops, but it can be easily detected by its burry song and chuckling call notes.

The Summer Tanager has an interesting feeding habit, which gives it a common folk name. How does this tanager stand out?"

Find out at:


Facts About Summer Tanagers

Summer Tanagers contribute to the ecosystems they inhabit in several important ways:

  1. Insect Population Control: Summer Tanagers primarily feed on insects, including bees, wasps, beetles, and caterpillars. By consuming these insects, they help control insect populations that could otherwise damage trees and other vegetation. Their preference for bees and wasps, in particular, may also reduce the number of stinging insects in a given area, providing a service to both humans and other animals.
  2. Seed Dispersal: While insects form the bulk of their diet, Summer Tanagers also consume various fruits and berries, particularly during migration and the winter months. As they feed on fruits, they help disperse seeds, which can promote the growth and regeneration of fruit-bearing plants in their ecosystems.
  3. Prey for Predators: Summer Tanagers serve as a food source for various predators, including birds of prey (such as hawks and owls) and mammals (such as raccoons and squirrels). Their role as prey helps maintain the balance of predator-prey dynamics within their ecosystems.
  4. Ecotourism and Birdwatching: With their vibrant plumage and enchanting songs, Summer Tanagers are a popular species among birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts. Their presence can contribute to ecotourism and help raise awareness about the importance of conserving natural habitats.

The Summer Tanager is a captivating and beautiful bird that brings delight to those fortunate enough to observe them during their breeding season in the United States or on their wintering grounds in Central and South America. By gaining a deeper understanding of their unique characteristics, habits, and the vital role they play in their ecosystems, we can better appreciate these vibrant creatures and work towards their conservation and protection. So, the next time you're out in nature, keep an eye (and ear) out for the enchanting Summer Tanager and enjoy the beauty and melody they bring to our world.

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