Birds – Scarlet Tanager

(Piranga erythromelas) Tanager family


Length—7 to 7.5 inches. About one-fourth smaller than the robin.

Male—In spring plumage : Brilliant scarlet, with black wings and tail. Under wing coverts grayish white. In autumn : Similar to female.

Female—Olive-green above; wings and tail dark, lightly margined with olive. Underneath greenish yellow.

Range—North America to northern Canada boundaries, and southward in winter to South America.

Migrations—May. October. Summer resident

The gorgeous coloring of the scarlet tanager has been its snare and destruction. The densest evergreens could not altogether hide this blazing target for the sportsman’s gun, too often fired at the instigation of city milliners. ” Fine feathers make fine birds “—and cruel, silly women, the adage might be adapted for latter-day use. This rarely beautiful tanager, thanks to them, is now only an infrequent flash of beauty in our country roads.

Instinct leads it to be chary of its charms; and whereas it used to be one of the commonest of bird neighbors, it is now shy and solitary. An ideal resort for it is a grove of oak or swamp maple near a stream or pond where it can bathe. Evergreen trees, too, are favorites, possibly because the bird knows how exquisitely its bright scarlet coat is set off by their dark back-ground.

High in the tree-tops he perches, all unsuspected by the visitor passing through the woods below, until a burst of rich, sweet melody directs the opera-glasses suddenly upward. There we detect him carolling loud and cheerfully, like a robin. He is an apparition of beauty—a veritable bird of paradise, as, indeed, he is sometimes called. Because of their similar coloring, the tanager and cardinal are sometimes confounded, but an instant’s comparison of the two birds shows nothing in common except red feathers, and even those of quite different shades. The inconspicuous olive-green and yellow of the female tanager’s plumage is another striking instance of Nature’s unequal distribution of gifts; but if our bright-colored birds have become shockingly few under existing conditions, would any at all remain were the females prominent, like the males, as they brood upon the nest ? Both tanagers construct a rather disorderly-looking nest of fibres and sticks, through which daylight can be seen where it rests securely upon the horizontal branch of some oak or pine tree; but as soon as three or four bluish-green eggs have been laid in the cradle, off goes the father, wearing his tell-tale coat, to a distant tree. There he sings his sweetest carol to the patient, brooding mate, returning to her side only long enough to feed her with the insects and berries that form their food.

Happily for the young birds’ fate, they are clothed at first in motley, dull colors, with here and there only a bright touch of scarlet, yellow, and olive to prove their claim to the parent whose gorgeous plumage must be their admiration. But after the moulting season it would be a wise tanager that knew its own father. His scarlet feathers are now replaced by an autumn coat of olive and yellow not unlike his mate’s.