Summer Tanager

Piranga rubra

Summer Tanager
Dan Pancamo/Flickr/Used With Permission

The most widespread tanager in the continental United States, the summer tanager is also one of the most brilliant with its fiery red plumage, perfect for any bird named "summer." The better birders understand these tanagers, the better they'll enjoy every seasonal visit.

Common Name: Summer Tanager
Scientific Name: Piranga rubra
Scientific Family: Cardinalidae (formerly and occasionally still classified in Thraupidae)

Appearance and Identification

This bird's characteristic fiery plumage is a key field mark, but because males and females look different, it is important to recognize more than just color to properly identify the summer tanager.

  • Bill: Large, thick, pale yellow, blunt tip
  • Size: 8 inches long with 11-12-inch wingspan, slender build
  • Colors: Red, black, yellow, olive, gray
  • Markings: Dimorphic species. Males are bright strawberry red overall with a black or blackish-gray wash on the primary flight feathers and a faint gray wash on the wings and tail tip. The extent of the wash can vary and these birds often appear solidly red. Legs and feet are dark. Females are mustard yellow or yellow-orange overall with a darker olive-green tinge on the upperparts, as well as the same blackish wash on the wingtips and tail tip. The eyes are dark for both genders.
    Juveniles look similar to adult females, but as males mature, they develop splotchy or mottled yellow and red plumage.

Foods, Diet, and Foraging

Summer tanagers are generally insectivorous and will eat a wide variety of bugs, including moths, spiders, caterpillars, beetles, and other creepy-crawlies. They will even eat stinging insects such as wasps and hornets, though they remove the stinger before swallowing the bite. When insects are scarce, these birds will also snack on berries and fruit. While foraging, summer tanagers stay in the middle and upper levels of the forest canopy, often sallying from the same perch over and over to catch insects. This gives birders great observation and photography opportunities as the birds return to those predictable perches.

Habitat and Migration

Summer tanagers are widespread through the southern United States in the summer months. Their summer range stretches from the Ohio River Valley to southern Iowa, eastern Kansas, and Oklahoma, west to central Texas, southern New Mexico, Arizona, and southeastern California, and even into northern central Mexico. The species' winter range includes central Mexico south to the northern portion of South America as far as Peru and central Bolivia, as well as the Caribbean. These birds prefer moist deciduous forests with abundant oak trees, as well as riparian areas, and they are often spotted along forest edges.

Vocalizations

Summer tanagers have a sweet warbling whistle that lasts 15-30 syllables and is often repeated. A buzz or rasp may be heard at the end of the song. The typical call is a rapid "pic-pic-pic-a-tik" with slight changes in pitch.

Behavior

These are solitary birds but may be found in pairs during the breeding season, though females are much less noticeable in their duller plumage and may not be seen as easily. When agitated or feeling threatened, summer tanagers may raise their head feathers into a slight crest.

Reproduction

These are monogamous birds. The female builds a shallow, cup-shaped nest using bits of bark, grasses, and leaves, lining the cup with softer materials. The nest is positioned 10-35 feet above the ground, typically balanced on a tree limb far out from the tree's trunk.

The oval-shaped eggs are faint blue or greenish, and have brown markings that may form a wreath or cap on the eggshell. There are 3-5 eggs in a typical brood. The female parent incubates the eggs for 11-12 days, and both parents feed the young chicks for 13-14 days until they are mature enough to leave the nest. A mated pair may raise 1-2 broods each year, with a second brood more common in southern populations where the nesting season is naturally longer.

On rare occasions, summer tanager nests may host brown-headed cowbird eggs, though they are able to recognize cowbirds and will chase them out of their nesting territory.

Attracting Summer Tanagers

Fairly shy, these are not common backyard birds but they will visit feeders offering a peanut butter and cornmeal mix or different types of suet. Bird-friendly landscaping should include oak trees, berry bushes, and a water source, and birders should avoid trapping or spraying for the bees and wasps these birds eat. Backyard birders who also maintain beehives or plant nectar-rich flowers and other bee-friendly plants may see more summer tanagers in their yard.

Conservation

These tanagers are not considered threatened or endangered. They are vulnerable to habitat loss, however, as development continues to fracture their preferred forest and riparian habitats in both their breeding and non-breeding ranges. Habitat preservation and minimizing insecticide are good steps that can help preserve summer tanagers, particularly in the western part of their range.

Similar Birds

  • Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea)
  • Hepatic Tanager (Piranga flava)
  • Flame-Colored Tanager (Piranga bidentata)
  • Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)