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Western Tanager

Western Tanager

Western Tannager by Pam Huntley, as heard on

I will always remember the first morning I saw a Western Tanager. I could not believe it was real. This bird is bright yellow with black wings and a brilliant red head. The Western Tanager offers a taste of the tropics. The name Tanager is an anglicized version of Tangarasógiven them by the Tupi Indians of the Amazon region. These brightly colored songbirds are from a family of 236 species including Euphonias. But only 5 make it up to North America for breeding.

The breeding male Western Tanager has a Yellow chest and rump, black wings and tail and a bright red head. On the wings there is one yellow and one white wing bar. The female is a dull yellow green with faint wing bars. They have a pale bill and are around 7 inches long.

Breeding pairs come to the foothills and mountain forests in spring and summer. They glean insects from plants or catch them in the air. These include wasps, ants and beetles. They also eat fruits such as Elderberries. Their song sounds a lot like an American Robinís but is more hoarse and ends with a hiccup-like pit-ta-tik call.

They nest in tall conifers from sea level to 9,000 feet. They make their nests on branches, far from the trunk. The nest is made with loose twigs and grass, then lined with fine rootlets and hair. The female lays 3-5 blue eggs with brown markings. She incubates them for 2 weeks.

In April, May and August and September they can be attracted to back yards for baths and to feeders with cut oranges, bread and cake.

Western Tanagers can serve as ambassadors to the greater Americas. They can remind us that our choices for fast food beef, exotic fruits, and coffee, unless it is shadegrown, can have a harmful effect.

First published MCAS The Whistling Swan July 2010
Photo uncredited