Last summer, Annette Bryant emailed me some beautiful photos she had taken of birds at her home in Marion, North Carolina.
“Photographing birds has been a passion of mine for many years,” Annette wrote to me. “I look forward to our blueberries getting ripe because I see certain birds only at that time.”
One of those birds, she noted, is the scarlet tanager. Anyone who has beheld a scarlet tanager is hardly likely to forget the observation. Thanks to a recent observation I made of one of these birds, I have been reminded of some of the breathtaking birds — including the scarlet tanager — that make the mountains of northeast Tennessee, western North Carolina and southwest Virginia their summer home. The extraordinary appearance of the male scarlet tanager is certainly one that sets it apart from most other songbirds.
This tanager is not typically a feeder visitor, but bird enthusiasts can lure these birds with fruit, such as orange slices placed in special feeders or simply spiked onto the branches of backyard trees. As an added bonus, orange slices can also attract birds such as brown thrashers, Baltimore orioles and gray catbirds. The scarlet tanager indulges its fondness for fruit by incorporating various berries into its diet. In addition to the blueberries mentioned by Annette, other fruit-bearing trees and shrubs — mulberry, elderberry, serviceberry and wild cherry — will make your yard or garden more inviting to this somewhat elusive bird.
I usually have a few scarlet tanagers in residence around my home during the summer months, but I haven’t seen one so far this spring. However, my luck changed while taking part in the Summer Bird Count for Carter County, Tennessee. The count, conducted by members and friends of the Elizabethton Bird Club, has been a long-running survey of summer birds in the region. Along with fellow birders Jean and Brookie Potter, Chris Soto and Mary-Anna Wheat, I got a timely reminder of the beauty of the scarlet tanager while we searched for birds on Holston Mountain near Elizabethton, Tennessee. A stunning male tanager showed up and entertained us with fantastic looks for several moments.
The male scarlet tanager boasts a brilliant plumage of crimson red paired with black wings and tail. Of course, like many other birds, the female scarlet tanager makes no real claim to the common name with her comparatively drab greenish plumage. However, the scientific name, Piranga olivacea, gives a nod to the olive-green plumage of females, young males and even adult males when they’re molting their feathers.
So, why is it so difficult to lay eyes on such a brightly colored bird? The answer rests with this bird’s daily routine, which is usually conducted among the upper woodland canopy in such tall trees as oaks and poplars.
Fortunately, male tanagers produce a distinctive song. Upon first hearing it, listeners might mistake the hidden singer for an American robin. Listen a little closer, however, and the song sounds as if it is being delivered by a hoarse robin with a sore throat. The male tanager also makes a vocalization described as “chip-burr” that is easily heard.
If we were to see a scarlet tanager in a rain forest in South America, we might not be so surprised by its vibrant plumage, usually associated with many tropical birds. The scarlet tanager is certainly better attired than most birds to provide observers a glimpse of a creature that would indeed look more at home in the jungle.
Worldwide, there have traditionally been about 240 species of tanagers. Experts have changed some of the ways they classify tanagers, so that figure is no longer set in stone. Tanagers are a New World family of birds, concentrated mainly in the tropics of Central and South America. Some of the world’s other tanagers are known by extremely descriptive names, including yellow-backed tanager, blue-and-yellow tanager, seven-coloured tanager, gilt-edged tanager, green-capped tanager, beryl-spangled tanager, opal-rumped tanager and blue-gray tanager.