Illustration by Peter Burke
The striking black-and-yellow western tanager, with its bright red head, is one of the more characteristic summer species of western pine forests. Although brightly plumaged, it can be quite inconspicuous when feeding on insects high in the canopy or singing for long periods without moving. During migration, the western often feeds on fruit and is more conspicuous. The western is the only regular North American tanager with wing bars. Note its yellow underwing linings in flight. Its bill is small for a Piranga, larger in size than the scarlet’s, but smaller than other species’ bills. Monotypic. Length 7.3" (19 cm).
Identification Sexually dimorphic. Breeding male: plumage is unmistakable. Bright yellow underparts, yellow rump, black back, and conspicuous wing bars contrast with black wings (yellow upper bar, lower white bar) and bright red head. Breeding female: duller, mostly greenish yellow below, grayish back and wings, with 2 thinner, pale wing bars. Underparts variable; some have brighter yellow belly and flanks, while others are quite gray. Nonbreeding adult male: similar to breeding male, but loses red head. Duller red confined in varying amounts to forehead and chin. Black in plumage not as crisp, with some greenish edging to back. First-fall male: Generally yellow-green, yellower below with a yellow upper wing bar, and white lower bar. Bill noticeably pale. First-fall female: can be very dull grayish yellow, still with 2 thin wing bars.
Similar Species Adult males unlikely to be confused with other tanagers. In southeastern Arizona, beware of confusing the western with the flame-colored tanager, which has 2 white wing bars, a striped red-and-black back, white tips to the tertials, and white-tipped tail feathers. The western has hybridized with the flame-colored; the offspring has a mixture of western and flame-colored characteristics. The female flame-colored has a streaked back, larger bill, and white tips to both its tertials and tail. Also note that some female scarlets show pale wing bars, but female westerns usually show a yellow upper bar. Also, some worn westerns show little or no wing bars, but when compared to the scarlet, the Western has a grayer back, a longer tail, and a larger bill.
Voice Call: a pit-er-ick, with a noticeably rising inflection. Very different from both the summer’s and the scarlet’s, but indistinguishable from the flame-colored’s. Song: similar in tone and pattern to both the scarlet’s and flame-colored’s. Flight note: a whistled howee or weet.
Status and Distribution A common bird of western coniferous forests, although it breeds in deciduous riparian habitats as far north as southeast Alaska. Migration: a common migrant throughout the lowlands of the West in spring (mid-April–early June) and fall (mid-July–September). Winter: found mainly from central Mexico south (rarely) to Costa Rica and Panama. Uncommon to rare in winter in southern coastal California. Vagrant: very rare wanderer, mainly in fall, to eastern United States.
Population Not threatened.
—From the National Geographic book Complete Birds of North America, 2006
Identify your backyard visitors in a flash! Just answer four simple questions to search our database of 150 backyard birds common to Canada and the U.S.
How much do you know about the feathered visitors to your backyard? Put your avian IQ to the test with this quiz.