Virtual Nature Trail

Scientific name: Piranga olivacea
Common name: 
Scarlet Tanager

(Information for this species page was collected in part by Mike Porter for Biology 220W, Spring 2005 at Penn State New Kensington)

The scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea) is a stunning, summer resident of our campus nature trail. The distinctive black and red breeding plumage of the male tanager is both breathtaking and unmistakable.

The scarlet tanager is between 6.5 and 7.5 inches long with a wing-span of about one foot. It weighs just under one ounce. Non-breeding males, females, and immature tanagers are dull green on their backs and yellow on their bellies. The males can be distinguished from the females and immatures by their darker colored wings and tails. When breeding season begins (May) the male tanagers' body colorations turn bright red and their wings and tails become black.

Range and Migration Pattern
The scarlet tanager is a migratory species. It spends the winter months in the tropical forests of Mexico and Central America. Its summer range extends broadly across the United States (especially the eastern and mid-western U.S.) and up into southern Canada. Breeding populations of scarlet tanagers have been reported from every county in Pennsylvania but are most commonly found in the mountains of the central and western parts of the state. It has been estimated that 13% of all of the breeding pairs of scarlet tanagers are found in Pennsylvania making our state extremely important in the breeding ecology of this species! Tanagers are most often found in dry, mature woodlands and pine forests but may occasionally be sighted in wooded parks and even in residential areas if there are large trees present. Migrating tanagers do make the flight from winter to summer ranges (or vice-versa) in one trip. They typically utilize a wide variety of "stop-over" habitats along the way in which they feed and rest before resuming their long journey.

Breeding and Reproduction
Breeding season for the scarlet tanager is from May to August. During this time the brightly colored males
who arrive in the breeding range some days or weeks before the females sing and vie with each other for territory within their forested habitats. Tanagers require large, continuous forests for their breeding territories and are negatively affected by the on-going, human-induced forest fragmentation which is severe especially in tanager's breeding regions of the eastern and mid-western United States. Tanagers make loosely constructed, cavity-shaped nests out of twigs, rootlets, weed stems, and grasses. They then line these nests with pine needles and fine grass. The nests are typically located in trees twenty to forty feet above ground level although some nests have been observed over a broader range of four to seventy-five feet above the ground. Eggs are typically laid from mid-May to mid-June. These eggs are a pale blue-green with brown speckles and are laid in clutches of four or five. The eggs are incubated for 13 to 14 days by the female. The young remain in the nest for 9 to 11 days after hatching and are brooded by the female but fed by both parents. There is only one brood per year for this species.

The scarlet tanager forages for food up in the tree canopy, in shrubs and bushes, and also on the ground. Insects (including aphids, weevils, wood borers, leaf beetles, cicadas, scale insects, dragonflies, ants, termites, caterpillars (including gypsy moth caterpillars), parasitic wasps, and bees) make up the bulk of their diet along with a variety of fruit (including mulberries, June-berries, huckleberries, and other wild fruits). Females tend to forage high up in the tree canopy and also tend to eat more flying insects.

Human Impacts on Habitat
As previously mentioned, forest fragmentation in the tanagers' breeding ranges seriously impacts both mating and fledgling successes. Forest fragmentation also increases the incidence of nest parasitism by brown-headed cowbirds and nest predation  by blue jays and crows. Also, loss of tropical forest habitats in Mexico (especially in the Yucatan Peninsula) and Central America has resulted in declining numbers of this and many other neotropical migrant birds. Pesticides and lawn chemicals also have been to shown to have deleterious effects upon tanagers (and other song birds as well).

Behavior - "Anting"
Tanagers, like many other bird, mammal, and reptilian species, display a behavior called "anting." Anting involves an animal adding ants either singly or in large groups to it skin. Tanagers have been observed spreading out their wings and actually laying down on top of an anthill in order to maximize their exposure to the ants. The ants only transiently stay on the animal and, apparently, leave behind a residue of their secreted chemicals. Historically it has been assumed that anting helps the animal either rid itself of skin parasites or that it conveys some level of protection against future parasitic infections. Some researchers, however, have noted that tanagers and other anting birds tend to be going through a feather molt when they display this behavior. Possibly, they hypothesize, the anting offers some relief to the bird from the skin irritation and discomfort which comes with the molting process.

The song of the scarlet tanager is similar to that of the American robin although it is a bit more hoarse and breathy (one expert described it like a robin singing with a sore throat). Especially during the early summer breeding season the "querit-queer-query-querit-queer" can be heard throughout the forested habitat of our nature trail and in many other sites throughout our western Pennsylvania area.

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This page was last updated on June 30, 2014  

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