Scarlet Tanagers are rather exotic summer visitors to the eastern United States. Males bring an unusually bright splash of red to green leafy forests. Despite their bold appearance, they are often hard to spot as they nest and hunt insects high in the tree tops. In this article, we examine 12 facts about Scarlet Tanagers, including how to identify their calls, and some interesting characteristics.
12 Facts About Scarlet Tanagers
1. In spring the sexes have very different plumage.
During the breeding season, males are bright scarlet red all over, except for their jet-black wings and tail. The female is a pastel-colored yellow-green with dusky wings. She has very little definition between the depth of the colors on her body, but the back, tail, and wings are darker green than the breast and underside.
2. Males change color during winter.
The male Scarlet Tanager’s characteristic black and scarlet feathers are only there for one part of the year, the spring and summer breeding season. After the breeding season concludes, he molts into similar plumage as a female, then he migrates south for the winter. Females are yellow-green throughout the entire year. They do not change color like males do.
3. They migrate between North and South America.
North America is the warm-weather home for Scarlet Tanagers. They spend summers in the eastern United States, and their range stops just shy of the Southeast. In the fall, they molt and migrate south across the Caribbean Ocean into South America. There, they winter in the Andes mountains, including the countries of Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru.
4. They prefer to live in forests with tall, leafy trees.
Scarlet Tanagers prefer mature, deciduous forests. For insect-loving birds, mature forests have established populations of diverse insects. The forest canopy also provides greater security and safety from certain predators than younger forests with shorter trees.
Their preference is for large uninterrupted tracts of forest. How willing they are to adapt to fragmented habitat of small forest patches seems to vary by region. Cornell reports that in the Northeastern U.S. they can be found in small forest patches, whereas they are mostly absent from small forest patches in the Midwest.
5. They rarely visit bird feeders.
Scarlet Tanagers primarily eat insects and supplement with berries. As a result, seeing them at a backyard bird feeder is uncommon. Their diet includes beetles, cicadas, flies, bees, termites, grasshoppers and spiders.
Don’t fear, however. You might still be able to entice them to visit your yard! Keep your tall trees and consider planting some berry bushes like mulberry, blackberry and serviceberry. They also enjoy water features, especially when it’s hot outside.
6. Both males and females sing.
Unlike many songbird species where only the male sings, the female Scarlet Tanager sings too. She communicates with other females and her mate by a series of chirps, whistles, and chirrups. Females will sing in tandem with males while gathering nesting material or foraging for food. Although females tend to use a softer voice and slightly less complicated song than males.
Males do more singing since they have to impress females and defend their territory, but song is still an important component of the social network of the female Scarlet Tanager.
7. Their nests are often parasitized by the Brown-headed Cowbird.
Scarlet Tanagers are often taken advantage of by Brown-headed Cowbirds. Female cowbirds act as nest parasites by laying their own eggs in the tanager’s nest. The cowbird’s egg usually hatches first and grows larger and faster than the tanager chicks. The baby cowbird will often give itself better odds by pushing out the other eggs or young from the nest.
If tanagers see a Brown-headed Cowbird hanging around a nest, they chase it off. However, if they don’t see the cowbird, they often end up raising a parasite’s chick by accident.
8. Males display their red and black feathers to woo females.
The male Scarlet Tanager puts his breeding plumage to good use. He will typically arrive in the U.S. a little sooner than the female (mid-May), setting up his breeding territory through singing battles with other males. These battles don’t end in fighting, there may be some displaying of feathers and at worst, a slightly aggressive chase.
After territories are established, each male works to woo one female per breeding season. He conducts his courtship dance on a branch below the female. He spreads his tail out and shows off the coloration of his wings.
9. The female does most of the work raising the chicks.
After mating, the female builds the nest, incubates the blue-green spotted eggs, and covers about half of the chick-feeding duty. Males defend the territory from potential threats and other competitive Scarlet Tanagers and help feed the chicks after hatching.
In some situations, males do less feeding. After about 2 weeks, the hatchlings fledge but they still stay close to their parents for another two weeks. Both parents may feed them during this time, or sometimes just the mother.
10. They build their nests high in the trees.
The female Scarlet Tanager builds her nest between 20 and 30 feet off of the ground. She usually picks an oak, but most other deciduous trees will do. Placing her nest higher up in the tree’s canopy keeps it hidden from predators, especially those bad at climbing.
Females prefer to build nests which have a clear vantage point to the ground and easily accessible from multiple angles.
11. Identify them based on their calls.
You’re much more likely to hear a Scarlet Tanager before you see it. As we’ve mentioned, they spend most of their lives high above in the tree canopy, hidden from view by leaves.
If you’re doing some summer hiking in the woods, listen for the chick-burr call, which is made by both males and females. Once you hear it, look for flashes of scarlet – you’ll have an easier time trying to spot the male.
12. Scarlet Tanagers hang out with all kinds of birds during the winter.
South America is host to thousands of species of birds, many of which overwinter in the Andes mountains, just like the Scarlet Tanager. During the winter months, this songbird dwells alongside other species of birds in large mixed flocks.
Benefits to living in mixed flocks include a lower rate of predation and increased chances of finding food. Young birds have the opportunity to watch older birds and learn how to mimic their behavior.
Anna is a wildlife biologist who graduated from Texas A&M in 2020. She enjoys feeding, studying, and taking photos of wild birds and hummingbirds. She once worked as the hummingbird department manager at a Wild Birds Unlimited store.