Western Tanager

Male Western Tanager

The other day Leonard and I saw one of our favorite, or at least colorful, summer visitors, a western tanager (Piranga ludoviciana). I realized that in six years I never did a post on this beautiful bird. Time to correct that omission.

Neotropic migrants, western tanagers winter in Central Mexico south and east to Costa Rica. Their summer breeding range is in mid to western North America where they inhabit pine forests, riparian areas, deciduous woods and human habitats such as parks, gardens and orchards up to 10,000 feet in altitude.

Western tanagers are sexually dimorphic, males and females look different. Adult breeding males are striking with their black backs, yellow underparts and bright orange-red heads. They have two distinctive wing bars, the upper is yellow and the lower is white. Non-breeding or eclipse males lose the red from their heads. Breeding females are greenish yellow below with a greyish back. The wing bars on a female are not as distinct as those on a male.

Insects comprise the bulk of the western tanager’s diet. In the spring and summer western tanagers move about in the crowns of trees slowly and methodically gleaning insects. They also will sit and watch for passing insects which they will then catch in flight. Because western tanagers spend so much time hidden amid leaves they are often difficult to locate. During the fall and winter fruits and buds are added to the western tanager diet.

Western tanagers will remove the wings (and occasionally the head) of dragonflies before eating them.

The red color in the plumage of most birds comes from carotenoids. The scarlet on the western tanager’s head is rhodoxanthin, which the tanager does not make. The western tanager most likely gets its red plumage pigments from insects, which in turn get them from plants.

This male western tanager was sighted along the Lower Hat Creek Trail (Shasta County CA).

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6 Responses to Western Tanager

  1. A very handsome little fella.

  2. Jim G. says:

    The Western Tanager bring back many fond memories of summers working as a Forest Service seasonal aid. Out in the field walking many miles a day; and their was that beautiful Tanager, it was a true pleasure to be with on those long lonely days.

  3. usermattw says:

    Wow, yes, that seems like an unusually colorful bird for your area. I can see why they’d be fun to spot.

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