Wildlife Profile


Summer Tanager (Piranga rubra)
by Mark Johns

  Wild Facts about the Summer Tanager

The Summer Tanager adult male is one of North America’s most recognizable songbirds. Its rosy red plumage and distinctive song make this bird a striking favorite of birders in parts of the east and southwestern United States. The Summer Tanager’s scientific name basically translates to mean "a small red bird". Although this bird readily eats fruits such as blackberries, pokeweed and mulberries, it is most noted for its consumption of bees and wasps on both the breeding and wintering areas. The eastern populations of the Summer Tanager are most often found in open deciduous forest, while in the southeast they are often found in pine-oak or even older pine plantations. The birds of North Carolina are also found at times near gaps and edges. In North America, the breeding population has remained fairly stable continent wide, while declining in some regions of the eastern United States. This species sometimes can be attracted to fruit feeders in backyards featuring such items as orange slices or pieces of bananas, and will also occasionally attempt to feed at hummingbird feeders.

History and Status

In the east, this bird favors open deciduous forests or, in the southeast, they can be in mixed forests or even older pine woodlands. It is a neotropical migrant that winters from central Mexico through Central America and into northern South America as far south as Bolivia and Brazil. Neotropical (New World) migratory birds breed during summer in temperate North America, migrating north each spring from wintering areas, then fly back south to spend the bulk of the year in Mexico, Central or South America, or the Caribbean.

The Summer Tanager is apparently declining along edges of its range in most areas of the eastern United States. It is expanding its range in some parts of the western US, but habitat destruction is likely causing range contractions in the lower Colorado River valley. In some parts of the west like southeastern California, southern Nevada and north central New Mexico where it has expanded its range, some researchers have theorized that a climatic trend toward warmer and wetter summers has caused these extensions.

Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) data show long-term population trends vary among geographic regions, with long-term continent wide trends stable. However, short-term trends from 1982-1991 showed significant declines. There have been increasing population trends in the Blue Ridge Mountains according to the BBS, but decreases overall in the southern and central Appalachians.

Description

This adult male Summer Tanager is the only all-red bird in North Carolina without a crest, and unlike the Scarlet Tanager male it retains the bright plumage throughout the year. The adult male Scarlet Tanager has black wings and a black tail. Also, the adult male Summer Tanager is more of a rose color than the intense scarlet color of the Scarlet Tanager adult male. The female Summer Tanager is usually brownish or orange-yellow, and not as green as the female Scarlet Tanager. The female Scarlet Tanager also has darker wings. Immature males have a distinct spotty or splotched appearance with orange-red and red patches on otherwise yellow plumage. Some immatures can be hard to tell from females.

Habitat and Habits

The Summer Tanager breeds typically in deciduous forest in the eastern parts of its range, but can also be found near large gaps or along edges. In North Carolina it also occurs commonly in mixed hardwood-pine forests, mature pine forests and pine plantations and near edges and gaps. During migration it can be found in similar habitats as on the breeding grounds, and during winter it is usually associated with forest edges, second-growth woodland and scrubby clearings mostly below 3,500 feet. It can also be found in parks, gardens and in shade coffee plantations.

The song of the Summer Tanager has a musical, rolling quality with a series of whistled notes similar in tempo to the American Robin. The notes are pure and lack the buzzy or horse quality of the usually shorter Scarlet Tanager song. The call note of both sexes is a distinctive ‘pichy-tuck’ or ‘pick-tuck’. The intensity and speed of delivery varies depending on the level of agitation of the caller. Males typically arrive on the breeding grounds in full song and often sing all day during establishment of territory and mater attraction. Males may have several different songs that may differ only slightly, but can be used to identify them by researchers. Females may occasionally sing a softer version of male songs.

Males usually sing near nest trees later in the season and will defend nesting and foraging areas. The female builds the open-cup nest, which is composed of dried vegetation and may be rather flimsy in the eastern part of the bird’s range. Nests are usually built in about a week and often hidden among clusters of leaves at least 10 feet off the ground. As with most Neotropical migrants nesting in North Carolina, old nests are usually not reused from year to year.

The Summer Tanager is a bee and wasp specialist. It will also take a wide variety of other flying and nonflying insects. During the late part of the breeding season, in migration and on the wintering grounds it will regularly eat fruit. To feed it will capture flying insects on short sallies from a perch as well as glean invertebrates and fruits from leaf and bark surfaces of woody plants. After catching adult bees and wasps, it will often return to a perch and beat the prey against the perch prior to eating it. It will also raid wasp nests and eat grubs whole, usually after killing or harassing the adults.

Range and Distribution

This is a bird of the southeastern United States and also parts of the southwestern US and Northern Mexico as a breeder. In North Carolina, it breeds throughout the state but is most common in the Coastal Plain. It is a Neotropical migrant wintering from central Mexico through Central America and into northern South America. In the east, there are occasional winter records from time to time.

People Interactions

The Summer Tanager is a nocturnal migrant that will sometimes collide with buildings or radio and TV towers during migration. As with most migratory birds, good estimates of how many birds are impacted are rare and in need of further study. This species is no doubt persecuted by some beekeepers for its habit of taking bees at hives. Serious habitat loss is occurring in parts of the southwest and western US, due to destruction of riparian forests. Deforestation on the wintering range may be a problem.

Suggested Readings

Lives of North American Birds by Kaufman, 1996, Houghton Mifflin Co., New York
The Birds of South America by Ridgway and Tudor, 1989, Univ. of Texas Press, Austin


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