Scarlet Tanager Dossier

by Carl Strang

It has been a while since I have posted one of my species dossiers. This is an awareness support method I developed in the 1980’s, when I realized that for most animal species, including the common ones, there was little that I could say I knew about them from direct experience. I wrote starting paragraphs based entirely on memories of my own observations, then added notes as I noticed new things over time. This helped me to focus, to pay more attention when out in the field. As time went on there was less to add from casual observation, but I continue to expand the dossiers as I continue to learn. Today’s example is a species that is good at staying out of sight in the upper canopy during the breeding season, and heads to the tropics for the winter, so my dossier on it remains relatively brief. (Date codes begin with a number representing the day of the month, followed by a unique 2-letter code for the month, ending with the year.)

Scarlet Tanager

Scarlet tanagers often forage closer to the ground in the spring migration, and are easiest to see then. There also is less obstruction as leaves still are expanding.

This bird lives in larger forest areas in summer, though sometimes they can be seen in smaller woodlands during migration. They mainly stay in the upper canopy in the breeding season, though often they are lower when migrating. Sometimes migrants occur in fairly large numbers for a week or so in mid-May in DuPage County. This was a fairly common breeder in the larger forests of south central Pennsylvania. They are more thinly scattered in DuPage County’s smaller forest islands. They are occasional in riparian strips in northern Indiana. This is a fairly deliberate, leaf-searching forager. The song is similar to the robin’s in its phrasing, speed and rhythm, but with occasional distinctive fuzzy or burry notes.

This male was rolled by the wake of a car as he flew over a road in Pennsylvania. He quickly recovered and went on his way.

10MY87. First tanager of the year heard singing at north Blackwell Forest Preserve.

13MY87. Willowbrook. A tanager in a willow top foraged by sitting for several seconds at a time, and hopping or flying 5 inches to 2 feet between perches. When it sighted prey, it hopped to a perch nearby, then reached for it.

Though she lacks the male’s brilliant breeding plumage, the female’s olive-yellow feathers, as well as the balanced symmetry of her shape, lend beauty to her appearance.

7MY88. First tanager of the year singing, Culver Indian Trails.

12MY99. First migrant noted at Willowbrook. Last spring migrant noted there 18MY.

13MY99. Tanagers were common today, low in the canopy, at Willowbrook.

5OC99. A late migrant at Willowbrook.

28JE00. A pair of tanagers fed a cowbird fledgling at Willowbrook, in the riparian zone midway along the Nature Trail’s west leg. A tanager could be heard singing east of the Nature Trail late into the spring, as recently as a couple weeks ago.

2JL00. A male tanager was singing in southern Waterfall Glen, in the topmost branch of a large dead tree, 10 feet from the nearest foliage, just perched and singing.

I don’t recall whether this bird was singing, or just stretching his mouth.

22JL00. Tanagers still are singing at Waterfall Glen. The one at Willowbrook has not been singing since the first week of July.

16JE01. A male scarlet tanager fed a cowbird fledgling in the savanna area of the Morton Arboretum’s Heritage Trail.

Tanager at Fullersburg Woods.

25MY02. Groups of scarlet tanagers moved together low in the forest today at Meacham Grove, and yesterday at Willowbrook. They all seemed to be males yesterday, but there were both genders today.



  1. Pat Clancy said,

    December 30, 2011 at 4:16 pm

    Carl, I would be interested in any information you have about the Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker. I have a male visiting regularly, drilling holes in a large Norway Spruce where my bird feeders hang in view of the dining room windows. I have seen him drilling as well as sipping sap. There are many holes in the tree now, and sap dripping down the trunk. I enjoy watching this bird but am a little concerned about the health of this very mature tree.

    • natureinquiries said,

      January 1, 2012 at 7:14 am

      Hi, Pat,
      I’m afraid I know of sapsuckers only as migrants passing through. I have no observations that would help with your situation. The spruce’s sap should prevent infection, and from what I have seen a sapsucker only keeps a few wells open at a time, but that is not based on a lot of experience.

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