May 25, 2011

Scarlet Tanager - the red in the sky

The eye popping color of the male Scarlet Tanager is among the brightest, most unlikely colors in all of New England. The tanager is a husky tropical migrant that travels from the forests of western South America to spend a busy summer in the hard wood forests of New England. This long distance migrant appears in mid-May, often in pairs with males draped in robes of unnatural red. The females are dressed in a more tasteful camouflage of yellowish-green. The males come into this red color for only a few months during the spring breeding season and by late August the contrasting all red body with jet blacks wings will dissipate into a greenish color similar to the female, though the males keep their black wings year round.  

Finding this insect catching, treetop bird can be a challenge even with their remarkable color. Knowing the song of the tanager and better still the call note is a great tool in locating these birds and catching a glimpse. The male’s song has been described as “a robin with a sore throat” a raspy, burry, collection of warbles and phrases. While this may confuse the new bird watcher learning to recognize the tanager’s call note is far easier and makes for a great identification clue. Listen for a slow, loud, two-note, “chick – burrrr” call repeated from high in an oak tree. This call of two distinct sounds can be heard from a distance and while it doesn’t help to clear away the large leaves on the tree it will at least let it be known that a tanager is around.

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is an educator, bird watcher, and writer fascinated by the intersections of place, people, nature, and culture. He works for Mass Audubon and lives in the heart of Massachusetts. For questions or comments please contact:

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