Western tanagers are medium-sized songbirds, found primarily in dense evergreen forests but also may make appearances at backyard feeders, particularly when oranges are on offer.
Our guide will help you successfully identify female western tanagers, and give you an insight into the key differences between males and females of the species in behavior and nesting habits, as well as appearance.
Female western tanagers share much of the same contrasting yellow and dark plumage as males, although the female’s coloring is not as vibrant, and their wings and tail are a dark olive-gray rather than a glossy black.
Pairs are frequently seen foraging for food together during the breeding season, making it easy to distinguish between the sexes when they are seen side-by-side.
Once the nesting season is over, males’ plumage becomes more muted, although there are still ways to accurately tell the difference between individual birds.
If you’re interested in learning more about female western tanagers and their roles in nesting and raising young, then please read on.
Close up of a perched female Western Tanager
Male western tanagers are striking in appearance, with black and yellow bodies and a fiery red-orange head. Females are less vivid, with muted shades of dull yellow and grayish olive-green.
Both sexes are roughly the same size, although males have marginally wider wingspans and greater body lengths.
In the nonbreeding season, identification between the sexes becomes slightly harder when males take on a more subdued appearance.
Nonbreeding male western tanagers’ heads are no longer a flame-red, but still have a noticeable reddish tinge, and their wings are more of a dark olive shade than the rich black seen in their breeding plumage.
Female Western Tanager
Male Western Tanager (Breeding plumage)
Western tanagers are around the size of a large sparrow, but smaller than an American robin.
In contrast to the showy plumage of the bright yellow and fiery red seen on males of the species, female western tanagers are largely less conspicuous, although they do share the same yellow coloring on their breast, rump and belly – albeit a more washed-out shade.
The female’s head is a uniform dull yellow, without any of the red coloring of males.
A female western tanager’s wings and tail are a dark shade of olive-gray-brown, and distinctly less vibrant than the glossy black seen in breeding males. Its wings are barred with yellow and off-white, and its bill is short, pointed and gray, and its legs are also dark gray.
From afar, female Western Tanagers and non-breeding males could be confused with female American Goldfinches, however, they are much larger than goldfinches.
Female Summer tanagers may also be confused, so be sure to check out this guide for identification tips.
Close up of a perched female Western Tanager
Female western tanagers are marginally smaller and lighter than males, in particular in wing and body length measurements. Females are on average 176.2 mm (6.9 in) in length, compared to 179.6 mm (7.1 in) for males.
The species’ average wing length measurements for females are in the range of 85 mm to 97 mm (3.3 in to 3.6 in), compared to 88 mm to 101 mm (3.5 in to 4.0 in) for male western tanagers.
Both sexes weigh roughly the same, with the average mass of females studied 29.8g (1.05 oz) and males 30 g (1.06 oz).
Male Western Tanager in non-breeding plumage - note the darker markings
Courtship rituals for western tanagers include the male chasing the female through trees, displaying its bright yellow feathers.
Both males and females western tanagers are territorial during the nesting season, with females observed to chase off other females from their patch.
Male western tanagers are typically more vocal than females, as is the case with many songbird species, but female western tanagers are by no means silent, and use call and song vocalizations to indicate their location, communicate with their mate and young, and signal their interest in mating.
The female’s song is more repetitive and rushed than that of the male, and is more frequently heard around the nest site, particularly after eggs have hatched.
Female Western Tanager taking a drink of water - some females are more of a dull color than others
Western tanagers form pairs at their wintering ground or during their migration to their breeding territories. Once they arrive, nest sites are chosen by the female western tanager, who then proceeds to build the nest alone. The male often accompanies the female as she collects materials and crafts the cup-shaped nests, but plays no part in the construction.
When the nest has been completed and eggs have been laid, incubation is undertaken by the female alone, who continues to leave the nest briefly to forage for food, but may also be brought food by her mate. Male western tanagers do not enter the nest or brood the unhatched eggs, but after the eggs have hatched, they will take on a share of feeding duties.
Once western tanager chicks have fledged, both parents continue to feed their young near the nest site for at least two further weeks. Pairs forage together throughout the breeding season, taking turns to take the lead role.
Female Western Tanager perched high up in a tree
Even though the male western tanager does not play an active role in nest-building or incubation, it remains nearby to warn the female of predators, and it’s unclear how well a lone western tanager female would be able to protect her nest site and young alone.
However, as the female continues to leave the nest for food during incubation of young and in the post-hatching period, it might suggest that it would be possible to successfully raise a brood by herself, taking sole charge of nest defense and feeding duties.
Female western tanagers have a dull yellow head, breast and belly. Their wings and tail are dark shade of olive green to grayish-black.
Western Tanager (female) perched on some rocks
Female western tanagers do call, making a short, explosive ‘pit-ick’ vocalization as a location signal or when on the nest, and a ‘pruiriri’ alarm call when startled.
Female western tanagers do sing, and can be heard singing more frequently after eggs have hatched until after the young have left the nest. Females generally sing in close proximity to their nest site, rather than any further afield or when foraging.
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