The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, July 16, 2010


Scarlet Tanager

(Photo by Joseph Ratner)

Name: The Scarlet Tanager is named for the male of the species which is predominantly scarlet in the breeding season. The rest of the year its plumage is more like that of the female – a much less conspicuous greenish yellow. This coloration is captured in the binomial, Piranga olivacea, where the “olivacea” refers to the duller green-yellow color. Both the genus name “Piranga” and the common name “Tanager” are taken from Tupi Indian words for similar types of birds found in the upper Amazon basin. The Tupi people were once numerous and many tribes spoke their language. European colonists in Brazil found it convenient to pick up some of the language themselves.

When and where seen: On July 2, Joseph Ratner not only spotted a Scarlet Tanager on Carlisle Pines Drive but was also able to take a photo. The bird was “sitting on the highest branch of the birch tree just off our back porch, and taking his good, slow time to preen and pose.”

This is a bird that is known to perch in the upper canopy of the woods where it will remain without moving for long periods. Because of this, it is usually hidden by leaves on the lower branches and is more often heard than seen. Tom and D’Ann Brownrigg have recently heard one singing near their house on Acton Street and have seen a female carrying food – a sure sign that she is raising a family.

Migration: Scarlet Tanagers are migratory birds. They will have left Carlisle by late October or early November and won’t be back till around May or June (perhaps late April) of next year. They winter over in tropical forests in Central and South America, going as far south as Bolivia. Their breeding range covers the whole northeastern quadrant of the US and into the southern edges of adjoining Canadian provinces.

Distinguishing characteristics: If you should be lucky enough to see a male Scarlet Tanager in its full breeding plumage there is no mistaking it for any other red bird. The head, chest, belly, and back are scarlet. The wings and tail are black. Starting around the end of July, the male will begin to molt from the glorious plumage that is the birthright of his sex into a splotchy blotchy red, yellow and drab green. Its winter colors are a slightly brighter version of the normal female colors. The female has an olive-green body with darker greenish-brown on the wings and tail. The song has been described as similar to that of a robin but hoarse, more like “a robin with a sore throat.” Both the male and female sing. You can listen to it at the Cornell website (link below).

Sources: Cornell Lab of Ornithology at (search for Scarlet Tanager); Audubon Society Master Guide to Birding, Volume 3; The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior, David Allen Sibley; Dictionary of Birds of the United States, Joel Ellis Holloway.

Submissions and ideas for the Biodiversity Corner are encouraged on any species that occurs in the wild and was seen in Carlisle. Send a note, a photo, or the whole column to If you have a mystery species, send that too. ∆

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