Scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea)

loading
Adult male scarlet tanager, perched on hawthorn branch
IUCN Red List species status – Least Concern LEAST
CONCERN

Top facts

  • The word ‘tanager’ derives from the Tupi Indians of Brazil, and refers to any small, brightly coloured bird.
  • In terms of distance travelled, the scarlet tanager is the most migratory of all tanager species.
  • The song of the scarlet tanager is said to sound like an American robin with a sore throat.
  • Scarlet tanager chicks do not open their eyes until they are five days old.
loading
Loading more images and videos...

Scarlet tanager fact file

Scarlet tanager description

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderPasseriformes
FamilyCardinalidae
GenusPiranga (1)

The scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea) is a medium-sized songbird (2) (4) which gets its common name from the superbly striking breeding plumage of the male, which consists of a bright red body, black wings and tail (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7), and whitish bill (2) (3).

In contrast to the male, the female scarlet tanager is usually slightly smaller (3) and has olive or olive-green upperparts (2) (3) (4), olive-yellow or yellow underparts (3) (4) (6), and dull olive-brown wings and tail (2) (3) (4). Yellow around the eyes and on the eyelids of the female give it a somewhat spectacled appearance (3).

Despite the male’s brilliant colouration, the scarlet tanager has been given the somewhat contradictory scientific name ‘olivacea’ which means ‘the olive-coloured one’. This name actually derives from the description of the first specimen of this species, which was a juvenile male (4). Juvenile and non-breeding male scarlet tanagers have much duller and more mottled plumage than the brightly coloured breeding male (4), and more closely resemble the olive-coloured adult female (2) (3) (4) (7). However, the non-breeding male scarlet tanager is somewhat brighter in colouration than the female and its wings and tail are black (2) (3), while the juvenile has two distinct, pale wing bars (3).

As in other tanagers, the scarlet tanager has a smooth, stout bill (4) (6) which is slightly notched on the side of the upper mandible (3) (6). The bill is slate-grey to blue-grey in the adult male, and a duller olive-grey in the female. The legs and feet are a dusky shade, while in the juvenile they are pinkish olive-grey (3).

The scarlet tanager has a distinctive husky quality to its song (6), which consists of a raspy ‘querit queer query querit queer(5) and is said to be reminiscent of an American robin (Turdus migratorius) with a sore throat (2) (7). Song structure varies considerably among individuals, with songs being formed from different combinations of syllables (3). The female scarlet tanager sings when collecting nest material and food, but these songs are shorter and softer than those of the male (7). The call of the scarlet tanager is often described as ‘chip-churr(3) (6) or ‘chip-burr(3) (5).

Also known as
firebird.
Synonyms
Tanagra olivacea.
Size
Length: 16 - 17 cm (2) (3)
Wingspan: 25 - 29 cm (2)
Weight
23 - 38 g (2)
Top

Scarlet tanager biology

The scarlet tanager is described as being a somewhat secretive bird (2), and prefers to spend its time high up in the forest canopy (2) (4) (6). This striking bird is a strong flier, and is capable of long, continuous flight (3). In fact, the scarlet tanager is the most migratory of all tanager species in terms of the distance it travels (3).

Migration occurs primarily at night (3) (6), with the scarlet tanager departing from its wintering grounds from around February, although the exact timing of departure varies depending on the location (3). The scarlet tanager flies across the Gulf of Mexico, reaching the breeding grounds by late April or early May (6). Following the breeding season, which lasts from May to July (7), the birds migrate southwards again in the autumn (6) (7), either singly or in small flocks (6).

Male scarlet tanagers arrive on the breeding site first (3) (7), and establish territories which they advertise by singing almost continuously from a high, conspicuous perch (3). The scarlet tanager is believed to be seasonally monogamous, and is not thought to have the same mate in successive years (3).

The female scarlet tanager selects the nest site (3) (7), which is almost always on a horizontal tree branch (2) (4), and builds the nest alone (3) (6) (7). The nest is usually a rather flimsy, shallow, open cup (2) (4) (7) formed mainly of twigs, rootlets and plant stems (2) (6) (7). Finer materials such as grasses are used to line the nest (6) (7).

The scarlet tanager only produces one brood per season (6) (7), which contains between two and five eggs (7), with four being the most common (3) (6). The eggs of the scarlet tanager are bluish-green to light blue in colour (2) (3) (6) (7), and are speckled with brown, chestnut-red or purplish-red spots. This spotting is usually more concentrated at the larger end of the egg (3) (6) (7).

Incubation of the eggs is carried out by the female scarlet tanager, who is fed on the nest by the male (3) (6) (7). The incubation period is between 12 and 14 days (3) (7), after which time the helpless, orange-skinned young hatch (3). Fledging time ranges from about 10 days (6) to 15 days (7).

The diet of the scarlet tanager consists mainly of insects (3) (4) (6), particularly during the breeding season (3) (7), although fruit from a wide variety of trees is also frequently eaten (3) (4) (6) (7). The scarlet tanager gleans insects from leaves and fruit (2) (3) (6) (7), or catches them on the wing (2) (4) (6). Preferred insect prey includes bees, wasps, caterpillars and moths (3) (6) (7), but spiders and dragonflies are also consumed (7). Young scarlet tanagers are fed insects and fruit (3) (7) by both the male and the female (3) (6) (7).

Top

Scarlet tanager range

The breeding range of the scarlet tanager includes most of eastern North America (3) (4) (6), from southern Canada south along the Atlantic coast to Oklahoma, the Carolinas (6), and northern Georgia in the United States (3).

A migratory species (6), the scarlet tanager flies southwards in the autumn to wintering grounds in north-western South America (3) (4) (7), including Colombia, Ecuador and Peru (3) (7) (8). It is also found on some Caribbean islands, including Guadeloupe and Trinidad and Tobago (8).

Top

Scarlet tanager habitat

The scarlet tanager is a canopy-dwelling species (2), which inhabits a wide variety of forest types, including mixed deciduous-coniferous areas (2) (3). However, it tends to prefer mature (2) (3) (6), deciduous woodland (3), especially where oaks are present (3) (4) (6). Occasionally, the scarlet tanager is found in suburban areas (2) (3), parks and cemeteries (3). This species generally prefers dry over moist forests, but is found in both (6).

The scarlet tanager winters in montane (2) evergreen forest (2) (6).

In its breeding grounds in the U.S., the scarlet tanager is found up to elevations of 1,800 metres, and on migration it can be found at even higher elevations, reaching 3,000 metres above sea level in Colombia (7).

Top

Scarlet tanager status

The scarlet tanager is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

IUCN Red List species status – Least Concern

Top

Scarlet tanager threats

The scarlet tanager is widespread and fairly common in its breeding areas, and is not globally threatened (4) (7). Due to its ability to make use of a wide variety of habitats, including forest edges, second-growth forests and partly-cleared or park-like areas, the scarlet tanager is afforded some protection against potential threats (7).

However, this species is still vulnerable to forest fragmentation in some parts of its range (2) (3) (7), particularly in its breeding grounds (3) (4) (7). Forest fragmentation in these regions means a loss of habitat for the scarlet tanager, which in turn can lead to nest failure for this striking species (6).

Top

Scarlet tanager conservation

The scarlet tanager is not considered to be at risk of extinction at present, and there are no known specific conservation measures currently in place for this species (3). However, this small bird is found in several national forests and other national protected areas (7).

To prevent declines in scarlet tanager populations, proposed conservation measures for the future include the prevention of habitat loss, and the preservation and restoration of extensive forested areas within this species’ breeding range (3).

Top

Find out more

Find out more about the scarlet tanager:

Top

Authentication

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

Top

Glossary

Deciduous
A plant that sheds its leaves at the end of the growing season.
Evergreen forest
Forest consisting mainly of evergreen trees, which retain leaves all year round. This is in contrast to deciduous trees, which completely lose their leaves for part of the year.
Gleaning
The catching of prey by plucking it from or within foliage.
Incubation
The act of incubating eggs; that is, keeping them warm so that development is possible.
Mandible
In birds, the lower jaw and beak, but the term is also used to denote the two parts of the beak.
Monogamous
Having only one mate during a breeding season, or throughout the breeding life of a pair.
Montane
Of mountains, or growing in mountains.
Second-growth
Vegetation that has re-grown after a major disturbance, such as fire or clearance.
Territory
An area occupied and defended by an animal, a pair of animals or a group.
Top

References

  1. IUCN Red List (June, 2012)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds - Scarlet tanager (June, 2012)
    http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Scarlet_Tanager/id
  3. Mowbray, T.B. (1999) Scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea). In: Poole, A. (Ed.) The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
    http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/479
  4. MobileReference (2008) The Illustrated Encyclopedia of North American Birds: An Essential Guide to Common Birds of North America. MobileReference, Boston.
  5. Dunn, J. and Alderfer, J.K. (2006) National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. National Geographic Books, Des Moines.
  6. Eastman, J.A. (1997) Birds of Forest, Yard, and Thicket. Stackpole Books, Pennsylvania.
  7. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Christie, D.A. (2011) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 16: Tanagers to New World Blackbirds. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  8. BirdLife International (June, 2012)
    http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=9298
X
Close

Image credit

Adult male scarlet tanager, perched on hawthorn branch  
Adult male scarlet tanager, perched on hawthorn branch

© S & D & K Maslowski / www.flpa-images.co.uk

FLPA - images of nature
Pages Green House
Wetheringsett
Stowmarket
Suffolk IP14 5QA
United Kingdom
Tel: +44 (0) 1728 861 113
Fax: +44 (0) 1728 860 222
pictures@flpa-images.co.uk
http://www.flpa-images.co.uk

X
Close

Link to this photo

ARKive species - Scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea) Embed this ARKive thumbnail link ("portlet") by copying and pasting the code below.

Terms of Use - The displayed portlet may be used as a link from your website to ARKive's online content for private, scientific, conservation or educational purposes only. It may NOT be used within Apps.

Read more about

X
Close

MyARKive

MyARKive offers the scrapbook feature to signed-up members, allowing you to organize your favourite ARKive images and videos and share them with friends.

Play the Team WILD game:

Team WILD, an elite squadron of science superheroes, needs your help! Your mission: protect and conserve the planet’s species and habitats from destruction.

Conservation in Action

Which species are on the road to recovery? Find out now »

This species is featured in:

This species is featured in the Wisconsin's Northwoods eco-region

This species is featured in:

This species is featured in the Illinois eco-region.

Help us share the wonders of the natural world. Donate today!

Blog RSS