Jeff Green | Jun 19, 2008
Outdoors - June 19, 2008
Back toHomeOutdoors in the LandO'Lakes - June 19, 2008 The Scarlet Tanager – A tree-top gem Outdoors in the Land O'Lakes by Steve Blight
Photo: Steve Maslowski, US Fish and Wildlife Service
One of the most attractive birds to make its summer home in the Land o’ Lakes is the Scarlet Tanager. This blackbird-sized Neotropical migrant prefers mature deciduous forests, especially those dominated by large diameter trees, but it will occupy forests with some conifers, especially white pine. It will also choose forest habitats with smaller trees, although less frequently.
In spring and early summer the male Scarlet Tanager is brilliant red – hence the name for this handsome bird – with jet black wings and tail. Residents and visitors to our area often find this bird difficult to observe because it prefers the treetops, but when seen, it is unmistakable. I am generally alerted to its presence by its song, and then track it down for a visual. It sounds like “a Robin with a sore throat” – a hoarse or “burry” song that somewhat resembles the well-known song of the common American Robin.
Like most Neotropical migrants, it arrives in our area from its wintering grounds in the tropics in the middle of May, and immediately gets busy setting up its territories and building a nest. The nest site is chosen by the greenish-yellow female. The much better camouflaged female alone incubates the eggs, although both parents feed the nestlings with caterpillars and other insects gleaned from forest foliage.
The Scarlet Tanager is known as an area sensitive bird. This means that its breeding success is negatively affected by forest fragmentation – where blocks of forest are broken up by roads, farms and urban areas. For example, in southern Ontario, where small woodlots tend to be surrounded by areas of intensive agriculture and urban lands, its nests are more likely to be parasitized by the Brown Headed Cowbird than where there is more continuous forest cover, such as on the southern Canadian Shield. Overall, the area around the Land o' Lakes region has the highest density of breeding Scarlet Tanagers in the province. Fortunately the population of this colourful songster has shown no noticeable decline overall in Ontario over the past 40 years, which is very positive.
I remember the first time I saw a Scarlet Tanager. I was camping along the shores of Lake Huron on the May long week-end with some friends many years ago when I looked up and saw a beautiful male in a tree a few meters overhead. I was not an avid birder at that time, but I had done a project on birds as a Boy Scout many years earlier, and had drawn a picture of one. When I was drawing the picture, I recall thinking that I was unlikely to ever see such a colourful bird, but I was happy to have been wrong! I credit this sighting as a key event in the growth of my personal interest in birds.
By the middle of August, breeding is generally over. The male is no longer singing and he begins to lose his red plumage and starts to resemble the female and the youngsters. At this point, their diets widen to include berries and other fruit. I once saw a small group of Scarlet Tanagers feeding on wild grapes at the end of August. Tanagers can be found in Ontario until well into September, when they leave for their winter homes in central and northern South America. In winter, tanagers inhabit mature, high canopy forests located on the eastern slopes of the Andes Mountains, from Panama to Bolivia. There they will spend the next seven months or so before they return once again to grace the Land o’ Lakes area with their colour and song.