The Summer Tanager (Piranga rubra) is a neotropical breeding migrant from the Cardinalidae family with an exotic look. American birdwatchers can find these colorful songbirds between May and October when they forage and nest in deciduous woodlands and riparian forests. These birds can be surprisingly tough to spot, despite their bright colors.
Males are practically unmistakable in their uniform scarlet plumage, but the species shows distinct sexual dimorphism, with males and females differing markedly. So what do female Summer Tanagers look like?
Female Summer Tanagers are medium-sized, yellow songbirds with yellow/green backs. They have a hefty brown or pinkish bill, prominent dark eyes, and a small crest that is not always visible.
Apart from their color differences, female Summer Tanagers have very different roles during the breeding season, and birdwatchers can also note the differences in their vocal behaviors.
Females can be confused with some other similar birds, but differing distributions and minor plumage differences make it possible to tell them apart.
This article covers the appearance and behavior of the female Summer Tanager. Read along to learn how to identify these colorful spring visitors.
Close up of a female Summer Tanager perched on a branch, with an insect in her beak, Galveston County, Texas, during spring migration
It is usually easy to distinguish adult male and female Summer Tanagers. Males appear uniformly scarlet red, while females are entirely yellow. Females have a greenish back and darker wing coverts and flight feathers.
However, older females can develop varying amounts of red in their plumage, and young males can be predominantly yellow with red/orange blotches and patches. Juveniles can also be tricky to tell apart in the months after fledging.
Female Summer Tanager
Male Summer Tanager
Female Summer Tanagers are medium-sized songbirds with a large head, a very small crest, and a stout bill. They have gray-brown feet and medium-length tails. Their dark eyes stand out clearly against their yellow plumage and light brownish beak.
Female Summer Tanager perched on a branch
The female Summer Tanager is easily confused with some other American Tanager species. Read on to learn how to tell these similar birds apart.
The Female Scarlet Tanager overlaps with the Summer Tanager range in the Southeast and Lower midwest. These birds are similar in appearance, although they have a more subdued yellowish coloration and darker wings than the Summer Tanager.
Female Hepatic Tanagers appear very similar but have a grayish back and face and a darker bill than female Summer Tanagers. Female Hepatic Tanagers appear most yellow on the crown and below the bill- lacking the all-yellow head of the Summer Tanager. The two species overlap in the Southwest.
The Western Tanager overlaps with the Summer Tanager in the Southwest but is absent in the East and Southeast. Female Western Tanagers have much darker wings with prominent whitish wing bars.
Close up of a female Summer Tanager perched on a branch
Young male and female Summer Tanagers look alike in their juvenile plumage, which lasts from June to August. The juveniles are olive-gray above, becoming yellow as they mature.
While overwintering in South America, first-year males resemble adult females but develop increasing amounts of red plumage, particularly around the head, tail, and rump. By the time they arrive back in the US, these males are readily identifiable from females by their mostly red plumage.
Continue reading to learn about female Summer Tanager size and how they compare with males.
Juvenile male Summer Tanager
Female Summer Tanagers are slightly smaller than males, with one study finding an average mass difference of about two grams. Females have a slightly larger bill but are otherwise smaller overall. However, the differences are too small to be noticeable in the field.
Keep reading for average Summer Tanager measurements.
Adult female Summer Tanager
Females arrive at the summer breeding grounds across the south and east of the US slightly later than males. The delay gives the males a chance to establish foraging and nesting territories. Once the females arrive, courtship begins almost immediately with much singing and chasing.
Summer Tanagers feed on wasps, bees, fruits, and berries. They generally forage on their own, although pairs may feed near each other while courting.
Adult male Summer Tanager
Female Summer Tanagers produce a variety of calls and can be heard throughout the day. They can be particularly vocal in the early morning and evening during twilight. Females do not usually sing, although some produce incomplete versions of the male song.
The most frequently heard female Summer Tanager vocalization is a two or three-noted ‘pit-chuck’ or ‘pit-i-chuck’ call. Females also beg for food during the nesting season when they are sitting in the nest.
Female Summer Tanager in a tree
There is a clear division of labor between male and female Summer Tanagers, with males doing relatively little work until the eggs hatch. Read on to learn how their nesting behaviors differ.
Female Summer Tanagers collect the materials and build the nest themselves. They gather the material near the nest site and do most of the construction in the mornings. The nest itself is a simple bowl of dried grass and other plant material.
Only the female Summer Tanager incubates the eggs. She develops a brood patch on her chest to transfer her body heat to the growing embryos. The male may feed her at the nest or when she takes a break, although some females have to feed themselves.
Females spend ten minutes to an hour in the nest before taking a short five-minute break. The male is usually not too far off and will chase her back if she stays away for too long.
Female Summer Tanager feeding on an orange
Both male and female Summer Tanagers feed their chicks. However, the female may provide more food than the male. Males often pass the food to the female instead of giving it directly to the chicks.
Summer Tanager fledglings leave the nest long before they are ready to fly or feed themselves. Both parents will continue to feed them for about three weeks, although the male may take over this responsibility if the female lays a second clutch of eggs.
Male Summer Tanagers might provide less direct care for their chicks than their female counterparts, but they are alert and ready to defend the nest.
Brown-headed and Bronzed Cowbirds lay their eggs in Tanager nests to avoid the responsibility of raising their own young. However, the male Summer Tanager is quick to chase female cowbirds away if he sees them.
Female Summer Tanager taking a drink of water from a bird bath, Louisiana, in spring
Summer Tanagers are monogamous during the breeding season. The male is present but does not play all that much of a role until the chicks hatch. He assists in feeding the growing nestlings but may bring back just half as much food as his partner.
Female Summer Tanagers are mustard yellow overall. Their backs are greenish yellow, and their wings show some darker shades of brown and black. They can have varying amounts of pinkish or reddish plumage on their bodies, with birds in the east likely to have more of these rose-colored feathers.
Female Summer Tanagers call frequently. Their vocalizations include begging, a soft contact call between partners near the nest, and a repetitive ‘pit-chuck’ call with two or more notes.
Female Summer Tanagers rarely sing although this behavior has been reported. The female’s song can be described as a poor rendition of the male’s song.
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