Scarlet Tanager

Last updated: September 9, 2022
Verified by: AZ Animals Staff

Males molt into an olive-yellow color during the fall and winter

Scarlet Tanager Scientific Classification

Kingdom
Animalia

Read our Complete Guide to Classification of Animals.

Scarlet Tanager Locations

Scarlet Tanager Facts

Prey
They eat mainly invertebrates, including moths, butterflies, ants, and beetles
Main Prey
Invertebrates
Name Of Young
Chicks
Group Behavior
  • Solitary/Pairs
  • Flocks
Fun Fact
Males molt into an olive-yellow color during the fall and winter
Estimated Population Size
2.6 million
Biggest Threat
Habitat loss and climate change
Most Distinctive Feature
Black and red contrasting colors
Distinctive Feature
Thick bills and short, broad tails
Wingspan
9.8 to 11.4 inches
Incubation Period
12 to 14 days
Age Of Independence
3 to 4 weeks
Age Of Fledgling
15 days
Habitat
Mature forests
Diet
Insectivore
Lifestyle
  • Diurnal
Favorite Food
moths and butterflies
Type
Bird
Common Name
Scarlet tanager
Location
North America and South America
Nesting Location
Shady deciduous trees
Age of Molting
One year
Migratory
1

Scarlet Tanager Physical Characteristics

Color
  • Red
  • Black
  • White
  • Olive
Skin Type
Feathers
Lifespan
up to 11 years
Weight
0.8 to 1.3 ounces
Length
6.3 to 6.7 inches
Age of Sexual Maturity
one year

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View all of the Scarlet Tanager images!



“Listen for their robin-like warbles in Eastern deciduous forests.”

Summary

The scarlet tanager inhabits mature forests high in the canopy. Look for their contrasting black and red colors as they perch on branches and dash out to grab their prey. You may hear their raspy warbles before you see them. Although, their calls are often mistaken for a robin’s. Discover everything about this fascinating bird, including where you can find them and how they behave.

5 Amazing Scarlet Tanager Facts

  • Males are only their brilliantly red color during spring and summer. They molt into an olive-yellow color in the fall.
  • Scarlet tanagers migrate by flying at night over the Gulf of Mexico.
  • They squish their prey by pressing it against a branch.
  • When threatened, they mob their predators by diving and swooping.
  • Pairs are only monogamous during the breeding season. They switch mates annually. 

Where to Find the Scarlet Tanager

The scarlet tanager lives in over 35 countries, including the United States, Canada, Mexico, Cuba, and Peru. It spends spring and summer in the Northeast United States and parts of Southern Canada. They migrate through Central America and the nearby islands before stopping in Northwestern South America for the winter. They live in mature deciduous forests and some mixed conifer forests in their summer habitats. When they’re migrating, they stop in similar forest environments but also reside in parks and gardens. In their South American winter homes, they inhabit mature forests on hills and mountains, often near a forest edge. To find them, look for flashes of red high in the trees and listen for their raspy robin calls.

Countries

  1. Canada
  2. United States
  3. Costa Rica
  4. Guadaloupe
  5. Nicaragua
  6. Anguilla
  7. Antigua and Barbuda
  8. Aruba
  9. Bahamas
  10.  Barbados
  11. Belize
  12. Bermuda
  13. Bolivia
  14. Brazil
  15. Cayman Islands
  16. Colombia
  17. Cuba
  18. Dominica
  19. Ecuador
  20. El Salvador
  21. Guatemala
  22. Haiti
  23. Honduras
  24. Martinique
  25. Mexico
  26. Montserrat
  27. Panama
  28. Peru
  29. Puerto Rico
  30. Venezuela

Scarlet Tanager Nest

Females choose their nest site in a shady deciduous tree around 50 feet above the ground. She builds a shallow open cup on a horizontal branch away from the trunk. It takes her around three days to make the nest, and she begins by finding material on the forest floor. The materials include twigs, grasses, bark strips, and pine needles; she lines it with vine tendrils and fine plant fiber.

Scientific Name

The scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea) is from the Cardinalidae family, which encompasses New World passerine birds, such as cardinals, grosbeaks, and buntings. The Piranga genus comprises members of the cardinal family, and its specific name, Olivacea, is New Latin for “olive-green.” 

Size, Appearance, & Behavior

These medium-sized American songbirds are the smallest Piranga species north of the Mexican border. The scarlet tanager is stocky with thick bills, large heads, and short, broad tails. They are smaller than a northern cardinal, measure 6.3 to 6.7 inches, weigh 0.8 to 1.3 ounces and have a 9.8 to 11.4-inch wingspan. Adult males are a dazzling red color with black wings and tails. Females and immatures are olive-yellow with darker green wings and tails. After the breeding season, males molt into their winter plumage, which resembles the females. 



Males arrive early to the breeding grounds, where they defend their territories. They perform singing battles with other males and will sometimes get into confrontations involving threatening postures and eventual chasing. Pairs are fairly solitary during the breeding season but disperse quickly to join flocks for migration and wintering.

Migration Pattern and Timing

The scarlet tanager is a long-distance migrant. This bird inhabits the Northeastern United States and parts of Southeast Canada during the warmer months. During migration, they fly at night, cutting across the Gulf of Mexico, Cuba, and the eastern coast of Central America. Their wintering grounds are in Northwestern South America, like Ecuador and Peru. 

Diet

Scarlet tanagers are insectivores who supplement their diet with fruit and tender buds.

What Does the Scarlet Tanager Eat?

They eat mainly invertebrates, including moths, butterflies, ants, beetles, flies, cicadas, termites, grasshoppers, locusts, snails, and spiders. They also eat wild berries like mulberry and elderberry. To find food, they walk along branches peeling back the bark. They often sit perched or hover to grab flying insects mid-air quickly. If they can’t swallow their prey whole, they squish it by pressing it into a branch.

Predators, Threats, and Conservation Status

The IUCN lists the scarlet tanager as LC or “least concern.” Due to its extensive range and vast, stable population, this bird does not meet the criteria for a “threatened” species. While no significant threats exist to this tanager, they are still vulnerable to habitat loss, and forest fragmentation may affect their population over time. They are also susceptible to the effects of climate change, such as spring heat waves, wildfires, and heavy rainfall.

What Eats the Scarlet Tanager?

Adult scarlet tanagers can be eaten by birds of prey like owls and merlins. But their young are the most vulnerable and often fall victim to blue jays, crows, grackles, squirrels, chipmunks, and snakes. They may be still around other birds like crows, choosing to be silent and watchful. But when necessary, they will mob predators by diving, swooping, and calling.

Reproduction, Young, and Molting

During courting, males hop around with their wings drooped and tails spread, showing their contrasting colors. When pairs form, they are monogamous during the breeding season but will switch mates annually. Females lay between two and five bluish-green eggs with brown spots and provide incubation for 12 to 14 days. Both parents feed the nestlings, and they fledge the nest nine to 15 days after hatching. However, parents feed them for another two weeks until they are fully independent. Scarlet tanagers are sexually mature and molt for the first time around one-year-old. They can live up to 11 years.

Population

Its global population is unknown, but according to the IUCN, its numbers have been stable in North America for over 50 years (1966 to 2019). While not exact, Partners in Flight estimate its breeding population at 2.6 million mature individuals. They are also not experiencing any extreme fluctuations or fragmentations in their numbers.

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About the Author

Niccoy is a professional writer and content creator focusing on nature, wildlife, food, and travel. She graduated Kappa Beta Delta from Florida State College with a business degree before realizing writing was her true passion. She lives in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and enjoys hiking, reading, and cooking!

Scarlet Tanager FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Is it rare to see a scarlet tanager?

The scarlet tanager has an extensive range and large, stable population of over two million mature individuals. They are common in North America and South America.

Where do scarlet tanagers live?

They live in mature deciduous forests and some mixed conifer forests in their summer habitats. In their South American winter homes, they inhabit mature forests on hills and mountains, often near a forest edge.

What is special about a scarlet tanager?

The most special thing about the scarlet tanager is their striking bright red and black plumage, which molts into an olive-yellow color during the fall.

What color is a female scarlet tanager?

Female scarlet tanagers are olive-yellow with darker green wings and tails.

How do I attract scarlet tanagers to my yard?

You can plant berry plants, like blackberry, raspberry, huckleberry, mulberry, and juneberry.

Is a scarlet tanager endangered?

The IUCN lists the summer tanager as LC or “least concern.” While no significant threats exist to this tanager, they are still vulnerable to habitat loss, and forest fragmentation may affect their population over time.

Where do scarlet tanagers go in the winter?

Their wintering grounds are in Northwestern South America, like Ecuador and Peru.

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