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Scarlet Tanager

(Piranga olivacea) 
Banded 1 June, 2001 - Newport, Indiana

General Information

The name Tanager comes from the language of the Tupi Indians of the Amazon region, who called the brilliantly colored birds of this group tangaras. Of the more than 230 species of tanagers that occur in the western hemisphere, only four regularly migrate to North America to breed, almost as if to tempt us to visit the Neotropics to see their colorful kin.


The male is bright scarlet with jet black wings and tail. It is the only bird in North American with this color pattern. It is from 6.5 to 7.5 inches long, with a wingspan of 11 to 12 inches. Weights range from 21.5 to 42.5 grams. 

Scarlet Tanager, male
Figure 1 - Scarlet Tanager, male


Scarlet Tanager
Figure 2 - Scarlet Tanager


The bill of the Scarlet Tanager has a distinct tooth-like structure on the cutting edge of the upper mandible. This enables the bird to eat the fruits and arillate seeds that make up its diet (Stiles and Skutch 1989).


These birds are commonly found in summer months in dense deciduous forests of oak, tulip trees, hickory, ash and pine, and in wooded residential areas and parks.


Scarlet Tanager
Figure 3 - Scarlet Tanager


Scarlet Tanager Juvenile
Figure 4 - Scarlet Tanager Juvenile


The female Scarlet Tanager, and young birds are greenish yellow with darker wings. Young males may have some red in the body plumage. Compare the dark bill on this recently fledged juvenile with the bill color in the adults pictured above. 

These tanagers are birds of the tree top canopy, where they forage for insects such as weevils, wood borers, leaf beetles, cicadas, scale insects, dragonflies, ants, termites caterpillars, wasps and bees.

Scarlet Tanager, upper wing
Figure 5 - Scarlet Tanager, upper wing


Scarlet Tanager, coverts
Figure 6 - Scarlet Tanager, coverts


Tanagers can be aged by the and shape of the primary coverts and color of body plumage (Pyle 1997). Young males have more yellow and brown and mixtures of red in their plumage. Adult females are primarily yellowish with an orange or reddish wash.

In the tropics, tanagers are found from sea level to the upper limits of flowering plants, where they glean insects and spiders from vegetation, and consume many types of fruits (Stiles and Skutch 1989).

Scarlet Tanager, under wing
Figure 7 - Scarlet Tanager, under wing


Scarlet Tanager tail
Figure 8 - Scarlet Tanager tail


In their native Neotropics, they can be found from Panama south to Peru and Bolivia. Why only four of the 230 species in the Tanager and Honeycreeper family make the arduous journey to North America to breed is a mystery that may never be solved. 

Nesting Behavior

Scarlet Tanagers prefer to nest in deciduous woodlands. The female builds a loose cup nest of twigs and grasses well out on a limb. She incubates from 3 to 5 eggs that hatch in about 2 weeks. Both parents care for the young who leave the nest in another 2 weeks. Only one brood is raised each season (Baicich, R. J. and C. J. O. Harrison. 1997).

Banding Recoveries

According to the web page of the Bird Banding Lab, a total of 30,405 Scarlet Tanagers were banded between 1955 and 1998. Of these, only 58 have been recovered, a recovery rate of 0.19%.

Banding studies show that Scarlet Tanagers are long distance migrants that can live more than 9 years in the wild.

If you should recover a banded bird, please report the band number to the Bird Banding Lab by calling 1-800-327-BAND.

Conservation Status & Economic Importance

Scarlet Tanager populations appear to be increasing in some areas of eastern US. Their adaptability to wooded parks and roadside shade trees may be a factor in their success. These birds consume large numbers of destructive insects and other invertebrate pests.

Literature Cited

Baicich, R. J. and C. J. O. Harrison. 1997. A Guide to the Nests, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds, 2nd ed. Academic Press, NY. 

Pyle, P. 1997. Identification Guide to North American Birds, Part I. Slate Creek Press, Bolinas, CA.

Stiles, F. G. and A. F. Skutch. 1989. A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica. Cornell University Press, Ithica, NY.

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