Scarlet Tanager: A Special Kind of Bird

By Dave Hanks

Red is striking! It is definitely eye catching. This applies to things in nature too. Fruits and flowers, which are red, stand out against a green background. The beauty of a red rose has been espoused for centuries.

The wild world is fascinating because of its vast variety. If a bear appears, it without doubt takes center stage. The same can be said about certain birds. I have my favorites, but can enjoy even the most common species. But when a red bird appears, it overshadows anything else around. Even the red upon the heads of male woodpeckers, makes them more attractive. The red flash of a hummingbird, when the sun hits it, is breath taking. It’s amazing what a little red can do!

The Scarlet Tanager is a bird of the stories that my mother, who grew up in Indiana, told me in my youth. It is an eastern species that I thought I would never get a chance to photograph. Its brilliant red body, contrasted against black wings, is extremely pleasing. Well, I got my chance one April day during spring migration on South Padre Island in Texas. Birds are tired, after flying across the Gulf of Mexico, and are more prone to sit. Many tanagers would sit at arm’s length and allow observation. We also observed the bites of “chiggers” that lurked in the grass. To get photos of this bird was worth the discomfort.

A hoarse “chip-burr” is the call of this smaller tanager that fills the eastern range where the Western Tanager is not. The two species overlap somewhat in the Great Plains. Fruit is a favorite food, and the tanagers we saw in Texas were feeding on grapefruit halves.

Tanagers are tropical species, but a few come north in the spring, only to make the long, long trip back when daylight shortens. In summer, they can be found in a wide variety of woodlands.

(Piranga olivaces)