The Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea) is a small American songbird from the Cardinalidae family. The females are relatively drab and do not develop bright breeding colors, a pattern typical among the various North American Tanagers.
Scarlet Tanagers are breeding summer visitors to the Eastern Half of North America, nesting from central Georgia to Southern Canada. So what do female Scarlet Tanagers look like, and how do they differ from males?
Adult female Scarlet Tanagers appear olive-yellow. Their rump, face, and underparts are yellowish, and their wings and tail are a darker olive shade. They are easy to tell from the bold black and red males in their breeding plumage.
Females can be confused with a few other American birds, but differences in calls, size and habits can help to confirm your identification. Adult females also resemble juvenile males of their own species that have recently fledged the nest.
Scarlet Tanagers migrate to deciduous forest habitats in the United States to breed. The males set up territories and sing to advertise their space. Females also sing in response to their partner, and their song is very similar. However, there are a few major differences between their roles during nesting, and females tend to do more of the work.
This article covers everything you need to know about the female Scarlet Tanager, a secretive summer songbird of the East.
Female Scarlet Tanager perched on a branch
The best way to tell a female from a male Scarlet Tanager is to look at their plumage color. Female Scarlet Tanagers are especially easy to tell from males during the summer nesting season. The males have black and red breeding colors during this time while the females are a subdued olive color.
Female Scarlet Tanager
Male Scarlet Tanager (breeding plumage)
Female Scarlet Tanagers are small, stout songbirds about the size of a bluebird. These fruit and insect eaters have dark bills, black eyes, and black legs.
Female Scarlet Tanagers are a dull, olive-yellow color. The wings and tail are a darker olive-brown color, although the rump is the same yellowish color as the head and underparts.
Female Scarlet Tanagers can be confused with some other birds. Continue reading to learn how to tell them apart.
Close up of a female Scarlet Tanager
Female Scarlet Tanagers are most likely to be confused with female Summer Tanagers (Piranga rubra) where their ranges overlap in the Southeast.
The two can be tough to tell apart, although female Summer Tanagers tend to be a brighter yellow overall. Their wings are not the same darker olive tone, and their legs and bills are a lighter shade.
Two other Tanager species visit the United States. The females of these birds also resemble the female Scarlet Tanager, although they occur only in the West and Southwest of the United States.
Female Scarlet Tanagers could also be confused with the following American songbirds:
Scarlet Tanagers breed in the United States, so adult males have distinctive black and red plumage. However, they look very different on their overwintering grounds in South America.
Non-breeding males can be told from females by their brighter yellow color and persistent black wings and tail. Juveniles of both sexes can also look pretty similar to adult females, although the young birds are browner and have fine dark streaks.
Non-breeding male Scarlet Tanager - note the black wings and tail
Scarlet Tanagers are small songbirds that weigh about an ounce (28 g) and have a wingspan of about 11 inches (28 cm) and a body length of 7 inches (18 cm). Male and female Scarlet Tanagers are very similar in size, although males have slightly longer wings, tails, and bills.
The striking color differences between male and female Scarlet Tanagers provide an easy way to tell between the sexes. However, careful observation can reveal some fascinating behavioral differences.
Male Scarlet Tanagers arrive at the summer breeding grounds a few days before the females. This headstart gives them time to establish a territory to attract a partner.
Males display their bright scarlet backs and contrasting black wings to the female, and if suitably impressed, she will invite mating by lowering herself with fluttering wings with her head tilted up.
Once paired, both sexes are territorial, and females will chase other females from their nesting territory.
Male Scarlet Tanager in non-breeding plumage
Female Scarlet Tanagers sing and call in North America. Listening out for them in the canopy is a great way to locate these shy birds. Both sexes produce a characteristic ‘chip-churr’ call and other variations. Their song sounds similar to the American Robin, only rougher.
The Female Scarlet Tanager’s song is very similar to the male’s, although a little softer and shorter. She will sing while feeding, nesting, and in response to the male’s song. She also produces a screeching call when defending her nest or territory from unwelcome visitors.
Close up of a perched female Scarlet Tanager
Male and female Scarlet Tanagers do not share their nesting responsibilities equally. Read on to learn more.
Female Scarlet Tanagers select the nest site, usually high up in the canopy of a deciduous tree. They collect the nesting materials and construct the nest without assistance, although the male accompanies the female to and from the site. Nest building is done in the mornings and takes just a few days.
Scarlet Tanagers produce a single clutch of three to five eggs each season. The female lays one egg each day and does all the incubation and brooding once the eggs have hatched.
Female Scarlet Tanagers develop a brood patch to maximize body heat transfer to the growing embryos and chicks. The female usually provides most of the food, although she does get some assistance from her partner.
During the breeding season, males and females are extremely easy to differentiate, as males have a striking red plumage
Female Scarlet Tanagers are certainly the more involved party when it comes to raising their young. But can they do it all alone?
Female Scarlet Tanagers would struggle to support their chicks unassisted. Males often feed their partner while she incubates the eggs, although the amount of food they provide varies between individuals. However, the male does feed the chicks when the female is brooding.
Female Scarlet Tanagers do not quite live up to their common name, although their specific epithet (Olivacea) is pretty fitting. They are a yellow-olive color overall with darker wings and tails.
Female Scarlet Tanagers call often. Typical calls include the two-noted ‘Chick-burr’, a sharp chip call, and twittering calls in flight.
Female Scarlet Tanagers are vocal birds in the breeding season, and their song sounds very similar to the male. Females often sing in response to the males, and the pair may produce their hoarse but pleasant song multiple times back and forth.
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