Spotlight on: Scarlet Tanager

The Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea) is arguably the bird that led to the conception of this entire project. The story begins with the Piranga tanagers, a genus that also contains familiar North American birds like the Summer (P. rubra) and Western Tanagers (P. ludoviciana) as well as more southerly species like the Flame-colored (P. bidentata) and Rose-throated Tanagers (P. roseogularis). These tanagers were originally classified with…well…the other tanagers, a wide radiation of American birds in the family Thraupidae. Recently, advances in molecular studies have indicated that this is not, in fact, the case. Piranga tanagers are not tanagers at all. According to their molecular make-up and DNA, these birds are actually Cardinalids. The American Ornithologists’ Union has since updated its taxonomy to reflect this change, placing the Scarlet Tanager and its kin alongside the cardinals, buntings, and grosbeaks of the family Cardinalidae. This discovery prompted the realization that, if these birds are so similar at their most basic building-block level, perhaps there are biological and behavioral similarities that had previously gone unnoticed. Thus, the Tompkins County branch of CEFO was born, with the goal of observing and recording the breeding biology of our own local Cardinalids.

Credit: Justin Hite

Tricky taxonomy aside, the Scarlet Tanager is a very impressive bird. They can be found in a wide range of wooded habitats across eastern North America, being replaced by the similar and appropriately-named Western Tanager in the west. They winter in northern South America, but their breeding habitat is the deciduous and mixed forests in the United States and southern Canada. The birds are about 7 inches long, with a greyish bill and feet in all plumages. Adult males have a striking pattern: brilliant red plumage with contrasting black wings and tailfeathers. The female is a dull, inconspicuous olive-green with some yellow and grey mixed in. Immatures and nonbreeding males are similar to females, though nonbreeders possess the black feathers of the breeding season. In their first spring, male tanagers may retain some yellow feathering in patches, while other males have an orange coloration overall. Fledglings often have streaking on their breast and flanks for some time after leaving the nest. The tanager is readily identified by its song, which resembles that of a robin, but with a hoarse, “burry” quality to the phrases. The bird’s “chck-brr” call is a common sound, and a distinctive identifier, in these woods.

Scarlets are birds of the canopy. Even the flashy males can be challenging to pick out as they move about the foliage in the treetops, though they can be spotted when they come into the opening or move closer to the ground. They forage as they go, gleaning insects and spiders from the leaves or snagging aerial arthropods such as dragonflies. They are also known to eat some plant matter. They usually place their nest towards the end of a branch with a clear view of the surrounding area, building a loose-looking cup of twigs and other plant materials. They seem to prefer deciduous trees, but one of our most productive nests was located in a conifer along the trail! Clutch size ranges from 1-6 greenish blue eggs with brownish speckling. Incubation lasts around 2 weeks, and the chicks themselves fledge within 9-11 days after hatching.

At our study site, we found a surprising number of Scarlet Tanager territories spread across the woods. We were able to locate and monitor 7 individual nests over the course of our field season. The birds’ distinctive vocalizations made them easy to locate, and they proved to be very cooperative subjects. The tanagers seemed to adjust readily to our presence, carrying on with their daily activities at the nest with us watching intently. Some individuals even seemed interested in us, with the pairs at nests 3 and 4 often coming down out of the canopy to watch the nest-watchers from nearby branches. We were able to observe a wide range of behaviors related to site selection, nest building, raising the eggs and chicks, and territory defense from rivals and predators. They were also much more successful than our observed grosbeak pairs at making successful nesting attempts where the chicks survived to fledge, but more on that later!

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