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Those Tantalizing Tanagers

With bright plumage and distinctive calls, these beguiling envoys from the tropics are welcome harbingers of spring.

By Noreen Damude

Texas Sees Red

Texas boasts four tanagers, all members of the genus Piranga. Definitely concentrated at the red end of the spectrum, the quartet of North American tanagers — the hepatic, western, summer and scarlet — represent variations on a theme from terra-cotta to lemon raspberry dip, from plush crimson to burning scarlet. While the summer and scarlet tanagers regale the eastern portion of the state, one as a breeder, the other de passage, the western and hepatic tanagers ply the mountainous regions of the West. A western subspecies of the summer tanager, formerly called Cooper’s tanager, also claims the West, breeding along the rivers and well-watered lowlands of the Trans-Pecos.

A Tanager by any other Name

The English word “tanager” comes to us from the language of the Tupi-Guarani, indigenous people of the Amazon, who named these colorful arboreal foragers tangaras. As traditionally conceived, the tanager family consists of nearly 240 strictly New World species, including such tropical denizens as honeycreepers, euphonias, conebills and the plush-cap. Most tanagers tend to be medium-sized, rather chunky birds with moderately heavy bills. In fact, there is a long-standing scholarly debate over the true genetic affinities of tanagers that keeps bird taxonomists busy. With current DNA-DNA hybridization studies and other advanced genetic-analysis techniques, this family complex may soon be realigned taxonomically. But no matter how the “tanager family tree” is pruned or reassigned, the four tanagers that grace our state will always be welcome harbingers of spring. And while they are with us, their colors and songs offer us a tantalizing taste of the tropics.

All in the Family

Benchmarks of tropical beauty, tanagers have long inspired a devoted coterie of painters, photographers and artisans to capture on paper, film and ornament the sheer brilliance and variability of their colors and patterns. Much less has been written about their life history and biology — as if beauty were all there was to know about these exotic emissaries from the tropical realm. As a group, tanagers do reach their zenith in South America. Embracing a bewildering palette of colors, they shatter the oppressive green of deep forest interiors with flashes of red, blue, purple and gold. Not surprisingly, tanagers recall the splendor of tropical coral reef fishes — parrotfish, angelfish, damselfish, sergeant majors and coneys — that light up, in like manner, the deep indigo of tropical waters. Even the names of tropical tanagers evoke their flamboyant attire: azure-rumped, flame-faced, brassy-breasted, beryl-spangled and purple-mantled, just to name a few. A mixed flock of luminously clad tropical tanagers contributes more than any other family, save perhaps the hummingbirds, to the visual splendor of the tropics. Despite their brilliant plumage, male tanagers often escape notice on their breeding grounds, as they hug the shadows and seldom emerge from the cloistered protection of the leafy canopy. Even their vocalizations mask their whereabouts and identity. Highly ventriloquial calls rarely betray their exact location, while warbling songs are often mistaken for those of grosbeaks, robins or vireos.

A Tanager's Life

Tanagers typically feed on a mixed diet of insects and fruit. Phlegmatic, deliberate feeders, they hop languidly from one perch to the next, not unlike vireos in their feeding style. Occasionally, they vary the tempo by darting out to snatch a fly or bee in midair. With their stubby, conical bill, they poke about under leaves for crawlers or probe the bark for wood-borers, destroying vast quantities of harmful insects. During the breeding season, male tanagers are as regal as their scintillant feathers proclaim. Unlike male hummingbirds, though, tanagers are mostly monogamous and stick with their mate year-round. Somber-toned females build the nest, incubate the eggs, and brood the nestlings with no help from the male. The eye-catching males keep their distance, perhaps so as not to draw attention to the nest. Once the male spies the red mouths of his gaping brood, however, he returns apace to help his mate stuff them with insects and regurgitated food until they fledge.

Scarlet Tanager

The greatest traveler in the family is the scarlet tanager, which, after wintering in Colombia and Bolivia, migrates northward to nest in the woodlands of southeastern Canada and the eastern United States. For sartorial elegance and fiery color, the male scarlet tanager has few equals in North America. The scarlet is one of the rare tanagers that exhibits pronounced seasonal changes in coloration. The brilliant scarlet- and-black males molt to greenish-yellow during the winter months, looking much like females. The female tends to go unnoticed — her head, back and tail greenish-yellow, her wings dusky, and her underparts dull buffy yellow. In Texas, birds are seen mostly in April and May at the time when the male’s scarlet and black plumage is at the height of color. Birds migrate through East Texas and along the coast before moving northeastward to nest. Though they devour vast quantities of insects, they also consume wild fruits and berries — mulberries, elderberries, choke cherries and sumac — in late summer. As a caterpillar hunter, the scarlet tanager is a virtuoso, as it skillfully extracts its weight in leaf-rolling caterpillars from the coiled leaves. They also dig out the larvae of gall insects, taking huge helpings of gypsy moths and tent caterpillars as they pass through the treetops. Scarlet tanagers breed mostly in deciduous forest where mature oaks, maple and beech are common. Nests are artfully concealed and placed well up in the canopy far from the central trunk. Birds winter in the tropical rain forest in lowlands just east of the Andes. Thoreau perhaps sums it up best: “Igniting dreams of a tropical wilderness so wild and strange and inexhaustible as Nature can conjure — the scarlet tanager is an outmost sentinel of the wild, immortal camp and dazzling infantry of the tropical rain forest.”

Summer Tanager

A handsome red bird of the treetops, the summer tanager is Texas’ most abundant and widespread member of the family. The male is uniformly crimson colored, its wings only slightly more dusky than the rest of the body. Unlike the scarlet tanager male that divests itself of its gaudy nuptial plumage for a safer, more somber winter garb, the summer tanager retains its bright rosy plumage year-round. Young males may even show up dressed in a curious patchwork of yellow and red, giving rise to misidentifications and the alternate name “calico warbler.” The female dons a rich golden toffee tone, eschewing the greenish yellow cast of the female scarlet. To attract a mate and defend a piece of woodland turf, breeding males sing a languid song, sounding a bit like a lazy robin with a southern accent. Call notes pituck or chick-tucky-tuck are your first and typically best clues that a summer tanager is nearby. The American nature photographer Eliot Porter once said, “A bird may be discovered in an instant, and in that instant it may reveal unimaginable secrets about itself.” This came home to me when I first saw a summer tanager breaking into a wasps’ nest to extract the juicy larvae within, braving the obvious assaults of a squadron of infuriated, well-armed defenders of the brood. Because of its habit of eating honeybees, locals dub the summer tanager “beebird.” Dining mostly on insects and fruit, tanagers rely increasingly on ripe berries in late summer. Nesting summer tanagers inhabit the mixed pine-hardwood forests of East Texas and the streamside cottonwood and willow thickets of the West. They build their loose, cuplike nests on horizontal branches, placing them far out from the trunk. Many southerners refer to this species as the “summer redbird” to differentiate it from our year-round resident, the northern cardinal.

Western Tanager

Yellow and black with a splash of raspberry on the head, the western tanager arrives in Texas mid-spring after an overland route from Mexico. Despite its striking markings, the slow-moving western tanager is a surprisingly inconspicuous bird of the western forests. Its scientific name, Piranga ludoviciana, reflects the fact that the bird was widely distributed over much of the vast territory of the Louisiana Purchase, which extended from the Mississippi River to British Columbia, at the time of its discovery by members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Western tanagers show a decided preference for open coniferous and mixed deciduous forests. From the top-most branches, the male sings his rough, robin-like song and repeats his pi-tic or pit-i-tic call note as he hunts for insects. Deliberate, leaf-by-leaf foragers, pairs feed together searching for wasps, ants, stinkbugs, caterpillars and grasshoppers. When berries begin to ripen in late summer, the birds venture out into the open to feast on them. Western tanagers breed farther north than any other member of the family, from southeastern Alaska southward through the western states to West Texas. Western tanager nests are typically built in pines and firs, and occasionally in oaks or aspens. The female constructs a compact cup of fir twigs, rootlets and moss, placing it 25 to 35 feet above ground and far from the main trunk of a pine or fir. She lays from three to five blue-green eggs and incubates them for 13 days. In the fall, birds retreat south to central Mexico through Costa Rica.

Hepatic Tanager

Perhaps the least known of the Texas tanagers, the hepatic is a summer resident of the Chisos, Davis and Guadalupe Mountains

of the Trans-Pecos. Probably only a short-distance migrant, the hepatic tanager retreats into Mexico during the fall. It breeds from the southwestern United States southward all the way to Argentina. In fact, the hepatic tanager may include three different species: the hepatic tanager, found from the United States southward to Nicaragua; the tooth-billed tanager, found from Costa Rica to northern South America; and the red tanager of eastern and southeastern South America. The name hepatic refers to the male’s liver- or brick-red color, substantially duller than that of the other two red tanagers. Preferred habitat consists of open mountain forests, oaks and pines.

From the deep shade of forested mountain canyons, the hepatic tanager’s nuptial song rings clearly from the tall trees — a warbling series of rich slurred, whistled notes interspersed with short pauses like that of the black-headed grosbeak. The hepatic’s call note is a distinctive chuck, recalling that of a hermit thrush.

In summer, males and females forage together in mountain pine-oak forests high in the branches of pines, firs, sycamores and oaks. The pair moves slowly and methodically through the uppermost branches, hopping from limb to limb, pausing occasionally to inspect the foliage. Every now and again, a bird whisks out and plucks a morsel on the wing. Hepatics consume huge portions of caterpillars and beetles, but also take their fair share of berries and small fruits. Come late summer, they turn to chokecherries and grapes. Hepatics typically breed at middle elevations in mountains and canyons. The female builds her nest in the fork of a limb approximately 50 feet above the ground. She weaves a saucer of grass, weed stems and flower stalks. She then lays the three to five bluish-green speckled eggs.

What Good is a Tanager?

While beauty may be their hallmark, tanagers clearly play a quintessential role in the economy of nature. They not only consume a host of harmful insects, but as partially frugivorous, they also disperse seeds of innumerable key species of trees and shrubs, both here and in the tropics. Over the past 200 years, massive areas of pristine forest habitat have been fragmented into today’s patchwork of agriculture, towns, grasslands and forests. Care must be taken to preserve native habitats so these pivotal keystone species continue to ensure the cycle of renewal of prime forest habitats as they rid our landscapes of innumerable destructive insects.

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