Scarlet Tanager

Most every birder has favorite birds, based on a variety of things.  When I was maybe 10-12, my favorite bird, for beauty, became the Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea), the male in his overall scarlet, with black wings and tail, and the female in her understated green.  My recollection of when this happened is of being in a deep forest in the Appalachian Mountains of western North Carolina, and seeing a pair of these tanagers high in the forest canopy.  What a place of beauty and what a perfectly beautiful pair of birds, I thought.  It remains a beautiful image in my head, although the image may have been “improved” over the years.  Nathan Kuhnert wrote the account of the Scarlet Tanager in the Oklahoma Breeding Bird Atlas (Reinking, D.L., 2004).  He begins his account with a particularly beautiful and apt sentence about this bird:  “The male Scarlet Tanager’s strikingly brilliant scarlet-red and velvet-black plumage is almost unrivaled among North American birds, although it is his characteristic call note that usually identifies his presence high in the tree canopy.”

In western North Carolina, the Scarlet Tanager had many challengers for “most beautiful bird”—many of the warblers and the Rose-breasted Grosbeak among them.  For me there was an added bonus for the tanager.  In fall migration I would often see older males that were pied, with green interspersed in the scarlet, as they changed into green winter plumage, and no 2 pied males seeming to have just the same mixture of scarlet and green.  I never found a Scarlet Tanager nest in North Carolina, but after I was living in Oklahoma, Patti Muzny showed me “half” of a Scarlet Tanager’s nest.  Let me explain.

In 1979 Maxine Kastl, Patti Muzny’s mother, found a tanager nest in her yard in Perkins, Payne County, central Oklahoma.  Very interestingly, the tanager pair was composed of a male Scarlet Tanager and a female Summer Tanager.  The nest and birds were observed from May 28-July 18; 3 young fledged from the nest. One of the remarkable things about the male was that he often sat relatively close to the ground, about as high as the nest which was maybe 12 feet up—Scarlet Tanagers usually sit high in the canopy.  The Summer Tanager usually nests within about 12-20 feet of the ground while the Scarlet Tanager averages nesting considerably higher in the forest canopy; Bent  reported that F.W. Rapp found 8 nests, ranging in height from 25-32 feet (A.C., 1965, Life Histories of North American Blackbirds, Orioles, Tanagers, and Allies).  Because Mrs. Kastl’s male Scarlet apparently changed his behavior, in staying low to the ground, I guess the female Summer “ruled the roost” on this particular behavioral point for the pair.  Because he did stay fairly close to the ground, this male Scarlet Tanager made for a great photographic opportunity, which at least Wes Isaacs and I took advantage of.

May is the perfect month to talk about migrants.  There are several Scarlet Tanager records for western Oklahoma, including 1 of a possible breeder in Cimarron County (Reinking, 2004).  In the Sutton Summaries of Species [1982] I find 3 old records for the Oklahoma City area:  on April 19 and 26, 1925, seen each date by Saunders; May 25, 1950 by P.S. Griffing; and May 20, 1953 by D. Clark and J. Kull.  I find no recent records for the species in the Oklahoma City area; does anyone know of one—I’d like to hear about it.  Keep the outside possibility of seeing a Scarlet Tanager in mind as you enjoy the spring migrants here in Oklahoma City.

The species is known to nest westward in Oklahoma at least to Pontotoc County, according to the Oklahoma Breeding Bird Atlas.  They lay 3-5 eggs, but usually 4.  These are greenish-blue and speckled with shades of brown.

I would like to thank my wife Melissa for contributing her editing skills to “Bird of the Month.”