The Tanagers That Aren’t


North America is graced with four species of Tanager: Scarlet, Summer, Western and Hepatic. Exceptionally colorful, beautiful and relatively common, they are long-distance migrants that grace our spring and summer days. But, alas, they aren’t really Tanagers; they aren’t members of the family Thraupidae, the true tanagers. Rather, they are members of the family Cardinalidae, the Cardinals. The early ornithologists thought that the similarly-shaped bodies and behaviors implied a closer relation than the genetic data establishes. Cardinals and true tanagers are only cousins, members of the same clade, but not closely related.

But that doesn’t mean these handsome birds aren’t worth a look. So WC proposes a glimpse of the U.S. members of the genus Piranga, the four tanagers that aren’t.

Hepatic Tanager Male, Arizona

Heptatic Tanagers winter in Central America, and migrate to the America southwest, as far north as central Colorado, to breed. The males are a variably-mottled orange and red, and a bit stockier than their fellow Piranga. This handsome fellow has less gray than is typical, and might have some Summer Tanager genes is his system.

Hepatic Tanager Female, Arizona

All of the Piranga are sexually dimorphic, but the females aren’t drab and boring. Just a bit less strident.

Scarlet Tanager Male, Teas

The electric red, black-winged Scarlet Tanager makes WC’s eyes water when he sees the male in his binoculars in good light. The reds are so bright that to avoid blowing them you have to underexpose by -0.67 EC. This is a species of mostly the eastern half of the U.S., although it breeds into central Alberta in Canada. Scarlet, indeed.

Scarlet Tanager Female, Texas

Another long-distance migrant, this species winters from Panama to as far south as central Bolivia. There have been some amazing studies done of this species; that will have to go in a future blog post.

Summer Tanager, Texas

But if you really want red, with no fancy trimmings, then the male Summer Tanager is your bird. A species of the southern half of the United States ā€“ reaching as far north as central Iowa ā€“ it’s mighty impressive in breeding plumage.

First year male Summer Tanager, Texas

WC doesn’t have a photo of a female Summer Tanager, so we’ll have to make do with a subadult male Summer Tanager instead. It’s not what WC would call a pretty bird but it is certainly colorful.

The fourth and last Piranga tanager is the only one found in the Intermountain West, the Western Tanager.

Western Tanager Male, Idaho

It may not have the neon coloration of the others, but it is a mighty handsome bird, one of WC’s favorites to see and photograph in the mountains of Idaho. It breeds in the western half of the United States, as far north as the southerly Northwest Territories

Western Tanager Female, Idaho

The female is a little drabber, a duller yellow with only the faintest hint of the reddish face of the male. In WC’s experience, the female is very hard to see or photograph, and WC counts himself lucky to have found this lady in the open.

Note: there is a fifth Piranga tanager that possibly breeds in the United States: the Flame-colored Tanager. WC has photos of the species, but all of them were taken in Central America. WC has never seen or photographed the species in the U.S. So it isn’t included here. But it’s a spectacular genus of bird, WC thinks you will agree. Just mis-named.

WC is away chasing birds. Again. Blog posts are pre-written for this trip, but WC’s ability to approve comments and respond to questions will be limited for much of the time he is away. WC apologizes for the inconvenience.