Despite the striking appearance of male scarlet tanagers, these active songbirds are notoriously difficult to spot, spending the majority of their time high in the canopy of tall trees feeding on insects.
So, what insects do scarlet tanagers eat, and might any foods tempt them to visit backyard feeders? If you’d like to find out more about the favorite foods of these colorful cardinals, then please read on.
Scarlet tanagers are omnivores, with insects – particularly wasps, bees and flies – forming the largest share of their diet. In winter, grubs and earthworms are foraged from the ground, and fruit bushes are raided for berries.
Occasional visitors to backyard feeders, particularly during spring migrations, scarlet tanagers may be tempted to stop off at feeding stations stocked with oranges and grape jelly, as well as suet and mealworms.
Caterpillars, moths, beetles and spiders are also eaten, as birds forage for live food on leaves, bark and branches in the forest canopy, and turn to the ground for snails, larvae and earthworms when the weather turns cooler and less insect life is found among the branches.
To learn more about the feeding habits of scarlet tanagers and how their diet changes throughout the year, please continue reading.
Scarlet Tanager feeding on Mulberries
Scarlet tanagers are omnivores, with their feeding habits changing according to what is most abundant at different times of the year. In spring and summer, insects – in particular, wasps and bees are preferred.
During fall and winter months, the focus switches to fruits, in particular, berries they pluck and eat whole from fruit shrubs and bushes and oranges and grape jelly they discover at backyard feeders.
Seeds do not form a significant part of the diet of scarlet tanagers, but will be eaten if nothing more appetizing is available. Shelled sunflower seeds at feeding stations may be taken, although suet, fruits and mealworms would be eaten in preference.
Wasps and bees are among the insects most commonly eaten by scarlet tanagers. Other insects and invertebrates are also eaten, including tent caterpillars, butterflies, spiders, beetles, earthworms and hornets.
In spring, scarlet tanagers may take advantage of fruits left at backyard bird feeders, including oranges, grape jelly and sometimes bananas and cherries.
Scarlet tanagers head to berry bushes and trees in the fall to take advantage of any wild-growing fruits, including blackberries, mulberries, strawberries, raspberries, huckleberries and chokeberries.
Fruit is plucked from the bushes, and then swallowed whole if small enough, or if too large, then they are mashed against the ground.
Insects form a significant part of Scarlet Tanager diets
Scarlet tanagers tend to eat twice a day, early morning and late afternoon, but may continue to forage outside of these periods. Feeding can be quite an intense task, with reports of individual birds eating as many as 600 tent caterpillars in a 15-minute period.
Scarlet tanagers may be tempted to visit backyard feeders, particularly those stocked with suet, mealworms, and fresh fruit, especially oranges, bananas and grape jelly. They have a reputation as being rather elusive and difficult to spot, and it’s thought that they may visit feeders more frequently after a storm.
As regular ground feeders, scarlet tanagers are less than likely to be spotted taking food from hanging feeders. Platform feeders or suet feeders will stand a greater chance of attracting visiting scarlet tanagers, as will feeders specially designed to hold fruit, such as oranges and grape jelly.
The most active foraging times for scarlet tanagers are early mornings and late afternoons. During the day they are less frequently seen, remaining out of sight in the upper branches of the canopy, where they continue to watch for passing insects to prey on.
Bees and wasps are one of the most common insects consumed by Scarlet Tanagers
Scarlet tanagers use a technique called ‘sallying’ when feeding, waiting on a branch for the opportunity of a passing wasp, bee or fly, and then pursuing them and catching them mid-flight.
Insects are also plucked from leaves and bark, and either swallowed whole, or if particularly large or awkwardly shaped, they may bash their prey against a branch or tree trunk and remove the head, wings and legs before they attempt to eat them.
In winter, they forage on the ground for insects and larvae, as well as taking fruits and berries from the shrubs and trees they are growing on.
In winter, when airborne insect populations fall and bugs are in shorter supply, a scarlet tanager’s diet will change to become more berry-based. Berry bushes, including blackberry and raspberry, are an important source of food in the fall, and red mulberry and elderberry are among the most commonly eaten winter fruits.
It’s more common to see scarlet tanagers foraging on the ground in winter than summer, searching for earthworms, ants, beetles and larvae rather than flying insects found high up in the canopy level.
The summer diet of scarlet tanagers consists primarily of wasps, bees, hornets and other flying insects which are plucked mid-air. Scanning for prey from a perch in the upper branches of tall trees is how scarlet tanagers spend much of their time during summer months.
When feeding young, an insect-based diet helps them to obtain the protein they need to ensure health and survival.
Immediately after hatching, regurgitated food is fed to scarlet tanager chicks by both parent birds. Gradually insects, initially with wings, heads and legs removed, and soft larvae will be fed.
After two days, berries may also be brought to the nest and fed to the young, with whole insects also being introduced from this point.
Male Scarlet Tanager feeding on an orange
Scarlet tanagers do visit feeders and, with some encouragement, may come back several times, particularly in winter months when natural food sources, such as insects, are not as readily available. It’s fine and safe to feed them, and offering suet, mealworms and fresh fruits may increase your chances of spotting one.
They don’t tend to stick around for long, but males may surprise you by bringing their mate to visit a few weeks after they first showed up.
Mealworms and suet are popular choices of standard bird feeder fare that may appeal to scarlet tanagers. Fresh fruit may also be appreciated, in particular orange halves, grape jelly, and peeled bananas. Cherries, cranberries and grapes can also be offered.
Wild birds should never be fed food containing onion or garlic. Avocado is also a big no-no for all birds, and scarlet tanagers are no exception.
Feeders should be cleaned regularly to reduce the risk of disease or illnesses caused by bacteria in rotting or moldy food or contaminated droppings.
Scarlet Tanager feeding on suet from a bird feeder
Water is the only drink that scarlet tanagers need, and proximity to a source of fresh water is an important consideration when selecting a nesting spot. Some moisture is also taken from fruit, especially the pulp of fresh oranges left at bird feeding stations.
Gardens planted with berry bushes may successfully attract scarlet tanagers, in particular red mulberry, sumac, serviceberry and chokeberry. A source of fresh water is also important, and feeders stocked with fresh fruit, particularly oranges and grape jelly, may also prove irresistible to visiting scarlet tanagers.
Taller trees, such as oak, willow, birch and elm, offer nesting and perching opportunities, and scarlet tanagers thrive in landscapes with a dense upper canopy of leafy branches.
From a pest-control point of view, the scarlet tanager is a highly useful species to have visiting your yard. Scarlet tanagers feast on wasps, so their presence will naturally curb the numbers of these less-than welcome insects. They do also eat bees, which from a pollination perspective is not quite so beneficial to natural environments.
Female Scarlet Tanager perched in a tree
Seeds are not a major part of a scarlet tanager’s diet, but they may be tempted by shelled sunflower seeds left on a backyard tray feeder. In the wild, they are unlikely forage for seeds, as their preferred insects and berries are readily available, depending on the season.
Bananas will readily be taken from bird feeders visited by scarlet tanagers. It’s recommended that peel is removed and bananas are cut in half lengthways.
Offerings of grape jelly at backyard feeders are a favorite of scarlet tanagers, especially in the spring.The sweet mixture provides an important energy boost during their migration north to their breeding grounds.
Scarlet tanagers will eat oranges at bird feeders, enjoying the moisture from the fruit’s pulp. They can be spotted enthusiastically feeding on sliced, halved or quartered oranges, particularly in the spring.
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