Illustration by Peter Burke
Often taken for granted, the brightly plumaged male summer tanager is one of the more spectacular breeding birds of North America. The uniform bloodred feathers seen against a bright green background are quite a sight. The summer feeds mainly on fruit, except during breeding season. Rather large and often sluggish, it usually sits still for long periods of time. Quite vocal, the summer is often detected by its distinctive call. The bill is generally bulky and long and ranges from gray to pale horn in color. The head often shows a slight crested appearance. Polytypic. Length 7.8" (20 cm).
Identification Sexually dimorphic. Breeding male: the adult male is unmistakable—all bright red—and achieves its brightest plumage by the end of its second calendar year. Breeding female: generally mustard yellow-orange, with greener wings and upperparts. Some may have dull red mixed in the plumage or may lack orange tones, resembling quite closely immature female scarlet tanagers. First-year male: mixture of red and greenish yellow, sometimes blotchy, sometimes with entirely red head and breast. First-winter female: can lack all mustard tones and look very similar to a scarlet tanager.
Geographic Variation Eastern birds (rubra) are slightly smaller, deeper red, with smaller bills. Western birds (cooperi) are larger, paler overall, with larger, paler bills.
Similar Species Adult males differ from the scarlet tanager by lacking black wings. The male hepatic tanager is more brick red in color and has a grayer bill, grayer flanks, and a dark grayish cheek patch. Also note difference in call notes. Females more problematic and can be confused with either female scarlet or hepatic tanagers, lacking all orange tones. Note yellow undersurface of tail in the summer, lacking in the scarlet. The summer also has a longer tail and shorter bill than the scarlet. Female hepatics less uniform underneath, with brighter yellow throats contrasting with grayer underparts.
Voice Call: a distinctive pi-tuck or pi-ti-tuck or ki-ti-tuck, sometimes extended to several notes. Song: an American robin–like series of warbling phrases. Easily confused with the rose-breasted’s or black-headed grosbeak’s. Flight note: a soft, wheezy verree. Juvenile: begging note similar to the black-headed grosbeak’s veeooo.
Status and Distribution In the East, common in the canopy of oak and pine-oak woodland. In the Southwest, common in cottonwood-willow habitats along permanent streams and rivers. Breeding: nesting birds arrive mid-April–early May. Migration: nomiate rubra is mainly a trans-Gulf migrant, common from along upper Texas coast to coastal Florida. Regular at the Dry Tortugas. Winter: mainly southern Mexico through Central America, uncommonly to northern South America. Rare in winter in southern United States from Florida to California.
Population Western population threatened by loss of riparian habitats.
—From the National Geographic book Complete Birds of North America, 2006
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