The Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea) is a colorful but elusive species from the Cardinalidae family. The species was named scientifically after the muted olive tones of the female, but its common name refers to the brilliant red of the adult males.
As one of the most attractive birds in North America, this species should rate high on every birdwatcher’s to-see list, but where exactly do Scarlet Tanagers live?
The Scarlet Tanager is a neotropical migrant that overwinters between Panama and Bolivia. These birds return to the United States and Canada to breed each spring. Most of the population nest in the Midwest and the Northeast, but some birds use forest habitats in the Southwest and Southeast.
Scarlet Tanagers are forest birds that inhabit deciduous forests in the United States and montane forests on their South American overwintering grounds. They are generally uncommon in suburbia, although they will visit very well-wooded areas.
This article covers the distribution range and habitats of the Scarlet Tanager, one of America’s most colorful songbirds.
Scarlet Tanagers can be found in the US and Canada during the spring each year
Scarlet Tanagers range between Southern Canada in the north and Bolivia in the south. These migratory birds visit North America's deciduous forests each spring to nest. They head south in the fall, just in time to avoid the cold and enjoy the warm tropical winter around the equator.
Keep reading for a more in-depth look at their North American range.
Scarlet Tanagers visit the eastern half of the United States from April to October each year. Their North American breeding range centers around the deciduous forests of the northeast.
To reach their breeding grounds in the north, they must migrate across the gulf of Mexico, so birdwatchers along the Gulf Coast and in the Southeast can see them for a few weeks of the year.
Look out for breeding Scarlet Tanagers in the following regions of the USA:
Scarlet Tanagers visit the eastern half of the United States from April to October each year
Scarlet Tanagers are not widely distributed in Canada, although many birds cross the border to breed in the extreme south from the Atlantic Coast to Saskatchewan each year. Their Canadian breeding range appears to be expanding to the west.
Look out for returning Scarlet Tanagers in the following Canadian provinces:
Keep reading for more detailed information on where you should be looking for these enchanting songbirds.
Female Scarlet Tanagers aren't as distinctive as the males
Scarlet Tanagers occur in the highest numbers along the Appalachian mountain range from the Virginias to Pennsylvania. They occur in the highest densities in unfragmented forest areas with a high proportion of large, mature oaks and other deciduous species.
Scarlet Tanagers are forest birds. They are most common in mature deciduous forests during the breeding season. They also breed in mixed forests (deciduous/coniferous) to a lesser extent.
Scarlet Tanagers will visit suburban areas with similar characteristics, especially shady areas with plenty of large deciduous trees like oaks.
However, these birds show a strong preference for forest patches of at least 25 acres or more, and they are attracted to areas with large trees for nesting.
Scarlet Tanagers can turn up just about anywhere while migrating, although they prefer areas with similar habitats to their breeding grounds.
Scarlet Tanagers are usually spotted in mature deciduous forests
Scarlet Tanagers can be difficult to spot despite their bright colors. They can be quite common in suitable deciduous forests in the east, but their habit of feeding quietly in the canopy of large trees means you usually have to spend some time looking.
The best places to look for Scarlet Tanagers are mature deciduous forests from Pennsylvania to Virginia. However, other hotspots include Southern Michigan, southeastern New York state, and New Hampshire.
A visit to the following areas may be productive:
Males are particularly vocal in May when establishing a territory and attracting a partner. Listen out for their pleasant, robin-like song, particularly in the mornings and early evening, and scan the canopy for the bright scarlet and black color of males.
Female Scarlet Tanagers are less conspicuous but will often occur nearby.
Close up of a male Scarlet Tanager, Galveston County, Texas
Scarlet Tanagers migrate at night but are otherwise diurnal. That means they are active during the day and return to their roost for the night.
Scarlet Tanagers are highly migratory, so they certainly do not stay in one place for the entire year. However, recaptures suggest that these birds do return to nest in the same areas each year, although data is limited.
Breeding takes about five weeks, from the start of nest building to the time the chicks fledge the nest, and both parents will continue to feed the young for another two weeks or so.
Therefore, pairs must stay within the vicinity of the nest for at least two months. The independent young probably remain in the area until they leave on migration.
Male Scarlet Tanager is perched high up in the top of a tree, Ashbridges Bay Parh, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Scarlet Tanagers live in South America in the winter. They inhabit the mid-canopy of forests from lowlands near sea level to mountain slopes over 4000 feet (1200m).
Scarlet Tanagers overwinter in the following countries:
Scarlet Tanagers avoid the cold by flying to tropical South America for the winter. The seasons change little around the equator, so these migratory birds live in perpetual warmth.
Male Scarlet Tanagers are particularly easy to spot, as their bright red plumage stands out in the trees - pictured at Pinckney State Park, near Pinckney, Michigan
Scarlet Tanagers live in forested areas in eastern North America during the summer months. Summer is the breeding season when female Scarlet Tanagers build their nests high above the ground in trees like Maples, Spruces, Oaks, and Elms.
Scarlet Tanagers are not gregarious birds. They are highly territorial and monogamous during the breeding season, so you’ll usually see them alone. However, you might spot a pair foraging together at the start of the breeding season or see a loose flock of birds on their annual migration.
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