'Summer Redbirds' stop over

By Jay V. Huner
Journal Correspondent

Scarlet Tanager makes stop in Piney Woods area
from tropical wintering grounds.
Spring migration brings the only truly red songbird to our Piney Woods from its tropical wintering grounds. The Summer Tanager has been called our "Summer Redbird". Yes, the male Northern Cardinal is red but it has a black face mask. Similar in size to its cardinal neighbors, the Summer Tanager lacks the cardinal's prominent crown.

Summer Tanagers are robust birds with stout yellowish bills. They have to be because they specialize in eating bees and wasps. They catch bees in flight and kill them by beating them on a branch and rubbing the stingers off on the branch. Wasp larvae are eaten after the parents are consumed. Needless to say, bee keepers are not big fans of these birds. Summer Tanagers are omnivorous and eat fruits and berries.

Female Summer Tanagers are a dull greenish yellow color above and dull yellow below. Nests are built in mixed pine-oak forests in our region. Their mates have a striking but caroling song, consisting of two or three phrases, repeated over and over. This song resembles that of the American Robin. Both sexes have a call that sounds a bit like "ticky tuck, ticky tuck, ticky tuck". If you think you hear a robin singing but here this distinctive call, rest assured that you are near a Summer Tanager nest.

It takes two years for male Summer Tanagers to take on adult red plumage. Until that time, they are splotchy red and yellow in color with a red head. Such males can mate and raise a brood in their first spring following hatching but are usually displaced by older red males.

There are only four tanagers found in the USA and Canada - Sumer, Scarlet, Hepatic, and Western tanagers. The only breeder in our area is the Summer Tanager. Hepatic and Western tanagers are birds of the western USA and are rarely found in our region. Neither is distinctly red in color.

The Scarlet Tanager male is a brilliant scarlet red but its wings are black so it is very hard to confuse it with the Summer Tanager. The female Scarlet Tanager is more yellowish in color and also has black wings. Scarlet Tanagers migrate through our region in spring and fall but nest much farther to the north. The male Scarlet Tanager molts its feathers in the fall and looks pretty much like the female with no hint of red.

Summer Tanagers migrate great distances from wintering to nesting grounds and back. The distance to Panama where many winter can be as much as 500 to 600 miles. However, a few Summer Tanagers remain in the Piney Woods through the winter and unlike their Scarlet Tanager relatives, they maintain their red plumage.

There are dozens of species of tanagers in the tropics and subtropics. They exhibit a spectacular array of colors much to the delight of birders who go to the region. We are fortunate that a few tanagers brighten our northerly vistas.

Jay V. Huner
Louisiana Ecrevisse
428 Hickory Hill Drive
Boyce, LA 71409
318 793-5529; piku1@suddenlink.net