Scarlet tanagers are small, brightly colored birds native to North and South America. The species is a long-distance, neotropical migrant, meaning they travel long distances between northern breeding grounds and southern wintering grounds.
During the breeding season, the scarlet tanager is found in the forests of the northeastern United States and southern Canada. Come late summer, though, all populations are preparing for a long migration south to the neotropical forests of northwestern South America.
On their migratory routes, scarlet tanagers pass through the southeastern US and cross the gulf to reach their wintering grounds. To break up the trip, they utilize stop-over sites in Central America.
We will discuss scarlet tanager migration in more detail throughout the article. Read on to discover more!
Close up of a male Scarlet Tanager during spring migration, Texas
Scarlet tanagers are a long-distance migratory species. They travel between breeding grounds in southern Canada and northern and south-central portions of the eastern United States to wintering grounds in northwest South America.
During spring and fall migration, the tanager is present in the southeastern US, portions of coastal southern Mexico, and the Caribbean.
Most individual scarlet tanagers depart from their breeding grounds between August and October. In northern states, such as Maine, Vermont, and Minnesota, migration typically begins mid- to late August.
Although Wisconsin neighbors Minnesota, populations in this state do not depart until mid- to late September. Scarlet tanagers in regions around Massachusetts, New Jersey, Michigan, Kentucky, and Arkansas also leave their breeding grounds around this time, between September 10 and 20. Farther south, in Georgia, migration occurs from late September to early October.
In the southern coastal and Gulf States, where the birds are already on their migratory route, departures are concentrated around mid-October. However, late migrants have been recorded in the southeast as late as early to mid-November in Georgia and late December to mid-January in Charleston, South Carolina.
Arrival dates are not well-documented, but what data is available shows that most scarlet tanagers reach their wintering grounds in South America between mid-October and mid-November.
There are also rare occurrences of scarlet tanagers migrating along the coast of California in mid-October to early November. This region is not considered part of the species range.
Female Scarlet tanagers are easy to usually easy to identify, although males look similar outside of the breeding season
The scarlet tanager departs its wintering grounds to begin its northerly migration in mid- to late February. The first individuals reach the Gulf Coast of the United States by late March, with peak migration occurring early to mid-April. If weather conditions are poor, the birds will settle along the coast until the storm has passed. However, under clear conditions tanagers will continue inland before stopping for a break.
Scarlet tanager migration through Arkansas peaks from mid-April to early May and birds will arrive in Missouri by late April. Arrival in Tennessee and Kentucky occurs in mid- to late April, with migrants reaching Ohio by the end of April and Lake Erie by the first week of May.
Birds also arrive in Maryland by late April and New Jersey by early May. During the second week of May, scarlet tanagers reach Vermont, and in late May these birds can be found in Minnesota and southern Canada.
Occasional, but rare, spring migrants end up on the West Coast. Records show these birds turning up in California between early May and late June, in Oregon from late May to mid-June, and exceptionally rare occurrences in Alaska between May and June.
The scarlet tanager departs its wintering grounds to begin its northerly migration in mid- to late February
Scarlet tanagers migrate primarily due to food availability. They are insectivores and fruit eaters; neither of these food sources is widely available over winter in northern North America.
Thus, the birds migrate to neotropical South America where their primary food sources are widely available throughout the winter.
How far scarlet tanagers migrate depends on where they are migrating to and from, but many individuals travel over 4,000 miles. Some of these birds migrate between breeding grounds in the northern US and southern Canada to wintering grounds in Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia.
Many Scarlet Tanagers will travel over 4,000 miles for migration
The length of scarlet tanager migration depends on where the bird is migrating from. Fall movements from Canada and the northern United States generally begin around August, with birds arriving on their wintering grounds between mid-October and mid-November. That would make longer fall migrations 3 to 4 months.
In spring, tanagers usually begin leaving their wintering grounds mid- to late February and arrive in their northernmost breeding grounds by late May. This would also make their longest spring migrations 3 to 4 months.
Scarlet tanagers migrate to northwestern South America in the fall and return to breeding grounds in northern North America in the spring. The birds’ primary migration route runs through the southeastern United States and along the Caribbean slope of Middle America. However, there is some slight variation in their routes between spring and fall migration.
Going north and south, scarlet tanagers cross the Gulf of Mexico, but the birds typically take a more easterly route in fall. This puts a higher concentration of tanagers flying along the east coast of the US through the Bahamas, Cuba, Jamaica, and the Cayman Islands before they reach South America.
In spring, the scarlet tanager's route falls more to the west. They pass north through the Caribbean and Pacific slopes of Central America, arriving on the coast of the United States west of Florida.
Scarlet Tanagers are a fully migratory species
The scarlet tanager can take anywhere between 1 to 4 months to migrate between wintering and breeding grounds. Tanager populations that breed farther south - such as in northern Georgia - have much shorter flights than their northernmost relatives. Tanagers traveling between southern Canada and South America will take closer to 4 months to reach their wintering destinations.
Scarlet tanagers do not fly non-stop. They have stop-over areas in the southeastern US, Caribbean, and Pacific slopes of Central America. The birds primarily rest in these regions during the day and migrate by night.
Scarlet Tanager perched on a blossom tree
The scarlet tanager typically migrates alone. Occasionally, small loosely associated flocks are recorded migrating together during spring. These groups often contain other neotropical migrant species, including thrushes, vireos, and warblers.
All scarlet tanagers are migratory. Within the US, these birds primarily migrate from northeastern and eastern south-central states.
These include Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Rhode Island, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, northern Georgia and Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, southern Iowa, Missouri, northwest Arkansas, and the northeastern corner of Mississippi.
Small populations also migrate from breeding grounds in extreme northeastern North Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas.
Scarlet Tanager at a feeder with a male American Goldfinch
In winter, scarlet tanagers leave their North American breeding grounds and migrate south to overwintering sites in northwestern South America. From about mid-October to mid-February, this species is found throughout the remote forests of Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia.
In summer, scarlet tanagers return to their breeding grounds in the deciduous and mixed-conifer forests of the northern and south-central United States and southern Canada.
They typically arrive sometime between April and May, depending on how far north they have to travel. The birds remain in their breeding territories for the summer, then depart between August and October.
Male Scarlet Tanager in breeding plumage
Scarlet tanagers generally migrate at night. During the day, they rest and forage to fuel up for the next leg of their journey. Depending on where the birds are leaving from, migrations can take anywhere from 1 to 4 months.
The scarlet tanager primarily migrates alone. However, birds will occasionally form small, loosely associated flocks during migration. These often consist of other species migrating from neotropical regions, including thrushes, vireos, and warblers.
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