“Listen for their robin-like warbles in Eastern deciduous forests.”
The scarlet tanager inhabits mature forests high in the canopy. Look for their contrasting black and red colors as they perch on branches and dash out to grab their prey. You may hear their raspy warbles before you see them. Although, their calls are often mistaken for a robin’s. Discover everything about this fascinating bird, including where you can find them and how they behave.
5 Amazing Scarlet Tanager Facts
- Males are only their brilliantly red color during spring and summer. They molt into an olive-yellow color in the fall.
- Scarlet tanagers migrate by flying at night over the Gulf of Mexico.
- They squish their prey by pressing it against a branch.
- When threatened, they mob their predators by diving and swooping.
- Pairs are only monogamous during the breeding season. They switch mates annually.
Where to Find the Scarlet Tanager
The scarlet tanager lives in over 35 countries, including the United States, Canada, Mexico, Cuba, and Peru. It spends spring and summer in the Northeast United States and parts of Southern Canada. They migrate through Central America and the nearby islands before stopping in Northwestern South America for the winter. They live in mature deciduous forests and some mixed conifer forests in their summer habitats. When they’re migrating, they stop in similar forest environments but also reside in parks and gardens. In their South American winter homes, they inhabit mature forests on hills and mountains, often near a forest edge. To find them, look for flashes of red high in the trees and listen for their raspy robin calls.
- United States
- Costa Rica
- Antigua and Barbuda
- Cayman Islands
- El Salvador
- Puerto Rico
Scarlet Tanager Nest
Females choose their nest site in a shady deciduous tree around 50 feet above the ground. She builds a shallow open cup on a horizontal branch away from the trunk. It takes her around three days to make the nest, and she begins by finding material on the forest floor. The materials include twigs, grasses, bark strips, and pine needles; she lines it with vine tendrils and fine plant fiber.
The scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea) is from the Cardinalidae family, which encompasses New World passerine birds, such as cardinals, grosbeaks, and buntings. The Piranga genus comprises members of the cardinal family, and its specific name, Olivacea, is New Latin for “olive-green.”
Size, Appearance, & Behavior
These medium-sized American songbirds are the smallest Piranga species north of the Mexican border. The scarlet tanager is stocky with thick bills, large heads, and short, broad tails. They are smaller than a northern cardinal, measure 6.3 to 6.7 inches, weigh 0.8 to 1.3 ounces and have a 9.8 to 11.4-inch wingspan. Adult males are a dazzling red color with black wings and tails. Females and immatures are olive-yellow with darker green wings and tails. After the breeding season, males molt into their winter plumage, which resembles the females.
Males arrive early to the breeding grounds, where they defend their territories. They perform singing battles with other males and will sometimes get into confrontations involving threatening postures and eventual chasing. Pairs are fairly solitary during the breeding season but disperse quickly to join flocks for migration and wintering.
Migration Pattern and Timing
The scarlet tanager is a long-distance migrant. This bird inhabits the Northeastern United States and parts of Southeast Canada during the warmer months. During migration, they fly at night, cutting across the Gulf of Mexico, Cuba, and the eastern coast of Central America. Their wintering grounds are in Northwestern South America, like Ecuador and Peru.
Scarlet tanagers are insectivores who supplement their diet with fruit and tender buds.
What Does the Scarlet Tanager Eat?
They eat mainly invertebrates, including moths, butterflies, ants, beetles, flies, cicadas, termites, grasshoppers, locusts, snails, and spiders. They also eat wild berries like mulberry and elderberry. To find food, they walk along branches peeling back the bark. They often sit perched or hover to grab flying insects mid-air quickly. If they can’t swallow their prey whole, they squish it by pressing it into a branch.
Predators, Threats, and Conservation Status
The IUCN lists the scarlet tanager as LC or “least concern.” Due to its extensive range and vast, stable population, this bird does not meet the criteria for a “threatened” species. While no significant threats exist to this tanager, they are still vulnerable to habitat loss, and forest fragmentation may affect their population over time. They are also susceptible to the effects of climate change, such as spring heat waves, wildfires, and heavy rainfall.
What Eats the Scarlet Tanager?
Adult scarlet tanagers can be eaten by birds of prey like owls and merlins. But their young are the most vulnerable and often fall victim to blue jays, crows, grackles, squirrels, chipmunks, and snakes. They may be still around other birds like crows, choosing to be silent and watchful. But when necessary, they will mob predators by diving, swooping, and calling.
Reproduction, Young, and Molting
During courting, males hop around with their wings drooped and tails spread, showing their contrasting colors. When pairs form, they are monogamous during the breeding season but will switch mates annually. Females lay between two and five bluish-green eggs with brown spots and provide incubation for 12 to 14 days. Both parents feed the nestlings, and they fledge the nest nine to 15 days after hatching. However, parents feed them for another two weeks until they are fully independent. Scarlet tanagers are sexually mature and molt for the first time around one-year-old. They can live up to 11 years.
Its global population is unknown, but according to the IUCN, its numbers have been stable in North America for over 50 years (1966 to 2019). While not exact, Partners in Flight estimate its breeding population at 2.6 million mature individuals. They are also not experiencing any extreme fluctuations or fragmentations in their numbers.