For the birds:Western Tanager

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Breeding male Western Tanager.
Photo by John Higbee.
By Christine Southwick
There’s a towhee-sized bird in my bird bath with a bright red head, yellow body, black wings with two wing bars, and a medium sized bill.

What is it? Is it wild, or escaped? And if it is wild, will it stay?

It’s a migrating Western Tanager on its way to nesting sites in LARGE, mostly coniferous, trees.

Douglas Firs and Hemlocks with trunks 21-inches-or -larger, which means 80–year-old-or-older, are the Western Tanager’s definite preference n the Pacific Northwest. They are vitally important for their breeding habitat, perhaps because of the types of insects that live in older trees.

During breeding season they eat almost exclusively insects, majorly consuming Western Spruce budworms and Douglas-fir moth larvae. Western Tanagers are mostly foliage gleaners, but will fly out and catch insects [called hawking], and sometimes will hover. They avoid continuous canopy, and seem to prefer about a 70% canopy, with some openings. Except during migration, they usually forage high in the canopy, making them even harder to see than their bright colors and slow movements would suggest.

Female. Photo by Christine Southwick.
Monogamous for a season, the adults arrive first; alone, with a mate, or occasionally in a small flock. . Female Western Tanagers build their flimsy nests 20-42 feet up, out on an end branch fork. The 3-5 eggs nests are often parasitized by Brown-headed Cowbirds which can dramatically reduce how many Western Tanagers fledge.

The adults migrate south first, leaving their offspring to find their own way down. During fall migration they eat berries and other fruits; and indeed their bill has evolved to be thinner than seed-eaters but thicker than insectivores.

This species was first discovered by the Lewis and Clark Expedition .

Non-breeding male.  Photo by Doug Parrott.
And did you know that the red coloring on the male’s head is gotten from the insects they eat? The females don’t have red on their heads, and non-breeding males usually only have a little red coloring, so hormones must activate the process.

It is during migration, when these flying travelers are looking for good feeding, drinking and bathing rest stops that you will see Western Tanagers.

If you have running water, or a bird bath in an a yard with trees, you may be visited by these lovely birds. Search for them if you hear their rolling “Pit-er-ick”. Despite their bright colors they can be hard to see.

Christine Southwick is on the Board of the Puget Sound Bird Observatory and is their Winter Urban Color-banding Project Manager. She is a National Wildlife Federation Certified Wildlife Habitat Steward, having completed their forty hour class. We're happy that she's sharing her expertise with us about the birds in our backyards.


Janet Way June 5, 2011 at 8:16 AM  


What a beautiful and informative report on this spectacular bird. We are lucky enough in shoreline to have some tall trees left to provide places for the Tanagers to stop.

Love your bird reports!


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