The western tanager is a medium-sized songbird found in the western regions of the United States. The adult male of this species has attractive orange-red and yellow plumage with an articulate voice and singing pattern similar to the American Robin. They prefer living in coniferous forests that they consider to be their natural abode.
Western Tanager Scientific Classification
|Scientific Name||Piranga lucoviadiana|
Western Tanager Quick Information
|Other Popular Names||Tangara a tete rouge (French), Tangara Capucha Roja (Spanish)|
|Size||18 cms in length with an average wingspan of 28 to 30 cms|
|Color||Male- An orange to reddish head, brilliant yellow body and jet black wings, back and tail
Females and Juveniles- Dimmer Yellow Green and Blackish
|Distribution||Western coasts of North America and Central America, all the way from Alaska to Panama. Their easternmost limits are the northwest territories in Canada and the western edge of North Dakota, Nebraska, and Texas|
|Habitat||Breeding – In open coniferous and mixed coniferous-deciduous woodlands that are as high as 10,000 feet in the Western parts of North America
Migration – Visit a huge range of natural habitats like forest, woodland and scrub as well as artificially created greenery like orchards, parks, and gardens
|Sound||Call- Pit-er-ick, the inflection keeps rising with the call ; low chuckling call notes;
Song– Short, burry song that is similar to other tanagers as far as tone and pattern are concerned
Flight Note– weet or howie
|Clutch Size||Three to five|
|Incubation Period||Two weeks|
|Lifespan||8 years in average, but they sometimes live as long as 15.3 years|
|Diet||Breeding season – Mainly eats insects especially wasps, ants, termites and stinkbugs
Fall and winter – Fruits like wild cherries, blackberries, and mulberries along with flower nectar
|Predators||Red-tailed hawks, prairie falcons, northern goshawks, Mexican spotted owls, sharp-shinned hawks, Cooper’s hawks, jays and domestic cats|
|IUCN Conservation Status||Least Concern|
Western tanagers fly slowly in the leaves and branches foraging for small fruits and insects among the dense foliage. During the spring and summer, the males sing their repetitive courtship song frequently.
These songbirds occasionally bond with other small birds like purple finches, mountain chickadees, and Townsend’s warblers. Their territorial instinct makes both the males and females drive away other members of their own sex if they intrude their area of habitation.
These birds attack and startle smaller birds who have no time to escape; this sometimes leads to collisions. They move slowly among the upper branches of trees that makes them difficult to spot in the dense undergrowth; however, they can fly swiftly when required.
Western tanagers are neo-tropical migrants and go as far as Mexico and Central America during winter. Although they prefer migrating alone or in pairs, sometimes they travel in flocks. They generally follow a particular flight pattern and are late spring to early fall migrants.
Central Baja California is considered to be the northernmost limit of the western tanager’s winter range, although some members of this species have also been sighted in the coastal regions of Southern California. However, the majority of birds of this species spend their winter in Southwestern Mexico and Central America.
Mating and Reproduction
The mating season of these monogamous birds begins in late spring and continues till summer. During this time, the male chases the females among the trees to get a mate.
For nesting, they prefer coniferous trees like fir and pine but occasionally go for deciduous ones like aspen or oak. Females who reach the breeding grounds early scan through the canopy and choose those areas that are relatively open.
They generally build the nest in a branch that is situated high up and far away from the trunk. It consists of a shallow open cup made of twigs, grass, fine rootlets and animal hair. Brown-headed cowbirds parasitize western tanager nests. They may remove tanager eggs from the nest and then lay their own. The tanagers usually accept the cowbird eggs as they are unable to differentiate them from their own.
The female lays a clutch of three to five eggs in the nest at the end of the gestation period. She then incubates the eggs for around two weeks. Both the female as well as the male care for the chicks and feed them.
The chicks fledge 11 to 15 days after hatching. The juvenile birds may stay with their parents for up to two weeks after fledging. Immature birds migrate much later than the adult birds.
- These birds undergo gradual feather molting as a precursor to the courtship season. This gives the males the attractive plumage necessary for attracting females. Molting also replaces worn out feathers before migration and also improves hygiene.
- With their evolved beaks and tongues, they can feed on nectar.
- Having flexible bodies, they can catch insects in mid-air by flying out.
- Western tanagers make use of techniques like tail cocking and wind flapping to help them protect against predators.
- Rhodoxanthin is a rare pigment found in insects that the western tanagers eat, that gives the birds their characteristic red color during the breeding season. This makes them very different from the other species of red songbirds who derive their bright red color from pigments called carotenoids.
- The migration routes of these birds have not been charted possibly because they travel long distances in the night over high altitudes.
- During their courtship ritual, the male tumbles past a female and performs antics that display his bright yellow and black plumage.
- It has been observed that during their migration, some of these birds reach the breeding grounds of northern Alberta and at the same time, another flock reaches Central Colorado that is more than a thousand miles to the south.
- They are the only species of tanagers who breed as far north as Canada’s Northwest Territories. They spend as little as two months in these chilly regions before migrating southwards to warmer areas.
- Western tanagers drink very less water; this could possibly be as they derive their daily quota from fruits and insects that they consume. However, it has been found that the migrant tanagers of coastal California drank more water than the birds in other regions.
- Due to legal protection, western tanager populations are much safer than they were a hundred years ago. Earlier, these birds were killed as they were considered to be agricultural pests.