Bright Red Today, Dull Yellow Tomorrow: Meet the Scarlet Tanager

The Scarlet Tanager Brings a Hint of the Tropics

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The spring arrival of the male Scarlet Tanager and its vibrant ruby red coloring flanked by jet-black wings and tail brings a hint of the tropics.

A male Scarlet Tanager in breeding plumage is a blindingly gorgeous songbird with its rich red coloration, but if you look closely, you can see patches of orange in the direct sunlight.

Females of this species are also beautiful, with a greenish-olive-yellow color, dark wings, and tail feathers. The male’s red breeding plumage accounts for the naming of this species.

Female Scarlet Tanager splashing around at the birdbath with the Bluebirds

Being Redder is Just Better

But male Scarlet Tanagers aren’t always ruby red. Instead, they change colors resembling females during non-breeding months, so you might see a male coming into its breeding plumage with random patches of green or yellow in the spring.

When female or non-breeding male Scarlet Tanagers drop by our feeders for a short visit, in a quick glance, we often mistake them for our other little resident yellow birds. But once you look a few seconds more, you recognize they are not as small and dainty as an American Goldfinch. So it’s a Scarlet Tanager.

Our encounters with these beauties included having them visit our feeders for a quick bite, often dropping in from the tree canopy above and seeing them during our hikes in New York and Connecticut in forestry areas high above in the tree tops.

According to All About Birds, after wintering from Panama south along the flanks of the Andes Mountains to Bolivia, Scarlet Tanagers breed in deciduous and mixed deciduous-evergreen forests in eastern North America. They are somewhat sensitive to habitat fragmentation, so look for them in large, undisturbed tracts of forest. During migration, they move through a broader variety of forests, shrubby habitats, and backyards.

A male Scarlet Tanager’s breeding plumage is bright red, but if you look closely, you’ll see patches of orange in the direct sunlight

Hoarse Robin-like Song

The males arrive first during spring migration and announce their presence with a raspy song. In his iconic field guide, Rory Tory Peters describes the song of the Scarlet Tanager as four or five short, nasal phrases, robin-like in form but hoarse like a robin with a sore throat.

The raspier quality of their song grabs your attention. Listen for a series of 4–5 raspy chirruping phrases with a hurried quality. When you hear it, that’s your cue to scan the tree canopy to get a quick glimpse.

Seeing Scarlet Tanagers

Unlike robins, Scarlet Tanagers won’t linger in your yard. Sightings in our yard are fast and furious and last a few seconds before they disappear in the tree tops.

Scarlet Tanagers stay high in the tree canopy and prefer raising their young in large tracts on uninterrupted forests to protect their nest from Brown-headed Cowbirds and other predators.

To find Scarlet Tanagers look in the tree canopy

The bird’s habitat choice makes them hard to spot until the male’s flashy red plumage fades in late summer with a molt. Then by the end of September, the male’s once striking red feathers are replaced with duller-looking yellow ones, similar to the females. So as the tree canopy thins with the change of seasons, male Scarlet Tanagers lose their pop of color and aren’t as instantly identifiable.

Recently when hiking at the Ashokan Reservoir in Olivebridge, N.Y., we heard their raspy-sounding call and began scanning the treetops for a Scarlet Tanager. Within seconds, the male’s brilliant red color pops out against the leaves and branches, and we enjoy seeing this bird in its natural habit before quickly flying off.

It made our day, even if it lasted a few seconds.

Scarlet Tanagers are one of the most stunning migratory birds you’ll encounter throughout summer, so no matter where you live, you’ll feel like you’re in the tropics.

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