Art Lander’s Outdoors: The Scarlet Tanager is a summer breeding bird with distinctive plumage

The Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea) is a summer resident, observed throughout the state.

According to the Kentucky Breeding Bird Atlas, populations are highest in the eastern third of the state, but research suggests that populations are increasing westward.

Sacarlet Tanager breeding range (Graphic from Audubon Society, click for larger image)

A member of family Cardinalidae, the Scarlet Tanager was first described in the scientific literature in 1789 by German naturalist Johann Gmelin.

There are three subspecies.

Its breeding range is from the northeastern tip of North Dakota, east along the Canadian border to Maine, south down the Atlantic Coast to Virginia, west through parts of North Carolina, Tennessee, northern Arkansas and Oklahoma, then north through Missouri and Iowa, in to Minnesota.

Migration routes are from eastern Oklahoma and Texas, south to eastern Mexico and Cuba, and along the Atlantic Coast from North Carolina through Florida.

The Scarlet Tanager winters in southern Central America and western South America.


In Kentucky, Scarlet Tanagers breed primarily in deciduous forests, where there are oak trees, but also maple, beech, and other hardwood trees, sometimes in mixed pine-oak woods.

Its preferred wintering habitat is rain forests in lowlands just east of the Andes.

Size and coloration

Male Scarlet Tanager (Photo by Ryan Sanderson, Cornell Lab)

Scarlet Tanagers are medium-sized songbirds of fairly stocky proportions. They have thick bills, rounded wings, fairly large heads and tails that are short and broad.

Both sexes are about 6.3 to 6.7 inches tall, weigh about .8 to 1.3 ounces and have a wingspan of 9.8 to 11.4 inches.

In spring and summer the male is a brilliant red, with black wings and tail. In late summer, prior to migration, he molts into winter plumage, greenish with black wings.

The female is a dull yellow-green, with darker wings,

Their songs and calls are a hurried, repetitive warble, rising and falling with a nasal buzz, chirp/chip, and whistle.

Food habits

Female Scart Tanager (Photo by Marieta Manolova, Macaulay Library)

They eat mostly insects, and some berries.

In summer, they feed on caterpillars, moths, beetles, wasps, bees, aphids, also some spiders, snails, worms, and millipedes.

The wild fruits and berries eaten include mulberry, elder, and sumac.

Scarlet Tanagers forage most of the time in tall trees, seeking insects in the foliage, but they may also hover momentarily, catching insects in mid-air.

During cold weather they also forage in low shrubs or on the ground.

Courtship and nesting

In courtship, the male hops about on branches below perched female, with wings drooped and tail partly spread, showing off contrast between red back and black wings and tail.

A male Scarlet Tanager tends its nest (Photo by Robert Lubeck)

The nest site is typically in a deciduous tree, usually 20 to 30 feet above ground, sometimes lower or much higher. The nest is placed on horizontal branch, usually well out from the trunk. Nest, built by the female, is a shallow cup of twigs, weeds and grass, lined with fine grass and rootlets.

She lays 2 to 5 pale blue-green eggs, with spots of brown or reddish-brown often concentrated at larger end. Incubation is by female only, and lasts about 12 to 14 days.

Both parents feed the nestlings, although the female does more often.

Young leave the nest about 9 to 15 days after hatching, are tended by their parents for about 2 more weeks.

The Scarlet Tanager is closely related to the Summer Tanager, both in the genus Piranga.

The best way to tell them apart is the plumage of the adult breeding males. The Summer Tanager is all red, the Scarlet Tanager male has a red body, but black wings and tail.

Against the green summer foliage, the male Scarlet Tanager stands out in stark contrast.

Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for the Northern Kentucky Tribune. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

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