Scarlet Tanager

Piranga olivacea


Early Spring Date: April 18
Late Spring Date: June 1
Most Frequently Seen: May 8-15

Summer Tanager

Piranga rubra


Early Spring Date: April 24
Late Spring Date: May 16
Infrequently Seen

Scarlet Tanagers regularly visit Monticello Park each spring. These eye-popping birds are common breeders in the Washington metro area, but they do not breed at Monticello. They usually start to arrive at the end of April, and your best chance to see one at the park is during the second week in May, when they are fairly common. They are long distance migrants who winter in South America. Summer Tanagers are infrequently seen at Monticello. They also are long distance migrants, but they have a broader wintering range that includes Central and South America and the Caribbean. A small number nest in the Washington metro area, which is near the northern edge of their breeding range, but none nest at Monticello.

Where to See Them in the Park

Scarlet Tanagers generally sing from the canopy. Even with their bright colors, they can be difficult to find. They frequently come down to the stream to drink and bathe. Summer Tanagers behave the same way when they are in the park.

Physical Descriptions


Scarlet Tanager Male
Scarlet Male - Photo by William Young

The male Scarlet Tanager is the "black-winged redbird". The body is deep scarlet, while the wings and tail are jet black. The bill is light-colored and thick, looking more like the bill of a finch than the bill of a warbler.

Scarlet Tanager Male and Northern Cardinal Male
Scarlet Male and Cardinal Male - Photo by William Young

The red of a Scarlet Tanager is much brighter than the red of a male Northern Cardinal.

Scarlet Tanager Males
Scarlet Males - Photo by William Young

Scarlet Tanagers seem sluggish. They do not dart quickly through the trees, and when deciding whether to enter the stream, they will stay for awhile either above or beside it. Sometimes, more than one tanager will enter the stream at the same time. They also are sluggish when they are in the stream.

Scarlet Tanager Male
Scarlet Male - Photo by Michael Pollack

Occasionally, you will see gray feathers on a male Scarlet Tanager.

Orange Scarlet Tanager Male
Orange Scarlet Male - Photo by William Higgins

You also might see some Scarlet Tanagers whose plumage is orange, ranging from washed out orange to the orange of a bright male Baltimore Oriole. The orange feathering can be the result of either diet or a genetic abnormality.

Scarlet Tanager Female
Scarlet Female - Photo by Michael Pollack

Female Scarlet Tanagers are olive with black wings and a black tail. The black is not as saturated as the black on a male.

Summer Tanager Male
Summer Male - Photo by William Higgins

Male Summer Tanagers are almost entirely red. The red is lighter than the red on a Scarlet Tanager.

Summer Tanager Female
Summer Female - Photo by William Higgins

The plumage of female Summer Tanagers can vary considerably. Many females appear to be a shade between olive and yellow.

Summer Tanager Female
Summer Female - Photo by William Higgins

Other female Summer Tanagers look more olive brown. Female Scarlet Tanagers have little variation in their coloring. While the wings of a female Summer Tanager look dark, they are not as dark as the wings of a female Scarlet. Also, the bill of the Summer is larger and stouter than the bill of a Scarlet. The head of the Summer is flatter, but fieldmarks such as the flatness of the head can be difficult to see.

Summer Tanager Second-year Male
Summer Second-year Male - Photo by William Young

Some second-year male Summer Tanagers look as if they are wearing camo plumage. They are yellowish birds with red blotches.

Vocalizations

The songs of the two tanagers are similar. The Scarlet Tanager has been described as sounding like a robin with a sore throat, and the song of the Summer is like a less burry Scarlet. It is much easier to differentiate the call notes of the two species. The Scarlet's typical call is a two-note chick-burr, while the Summer's typical call is a five-note picki-tucki-tuck. Some tanagers call more than they sing.

Hear the vocalizations of the Scarlet Tanager.
Hear the vocalizations of the Summer Tanager.

Notes

The North American tanagers are not related to the large colorful family of birds called tanagers in Central and South America and the Caribbean. The North American tanagers are in the same family as the Northern Cardinal. A significant part of the diet of the Summer Tanager is bees and wasps. They rub the back end of their prey against a branch to remove the stinger. A beautiful family of birds called bee-eaters in Eurasia, Africa, and Australia does something similar with the bees and wasps they catch.

Origin of Names

Common Names: Scarlet from the plumage. Summer to distinguish them from Northern Cardinals, who are a year-round red bird rather than a summer visitor. Tanager is the word for tanagers and similar species in the language of the Tupi Indians of South America.
Genus Name: Piranga is a South American Indian word for birds such as tanagers.
Species Names: Olivacea means "olive", from the color of the female Scarlet. Rubra means "red", from the color of the male Summer.

Scarlet Tanager video footage
Summer Tanager video footage

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