by Mary Merriman
Wander through almost any Western forest in summer, especially in the high country, and you will, at some point, notice a medium-sized bright yellow bird with a red-orange head and black wings. This may be the most iconic of Western forest birds, the Western Tanager. Over the years the Western Tanager has graced the covers of David Sibley, Roger Tory Peterson and National Geographic field guides. Its striking coloration makes it most easy to identify in the dark conifers or in pine-oak forests. Western Tanagers arrive in April and May from Mexico. They breed in the western ranges of North America where temperate forests teem with protein rich insects. Yes, those pesky mosquitoes provide plenty of food for parents and young birds. Western Tanagers hang around most of the summer here but when cool weather arrives and the insects die off, they head south to find insects and fruits for the winter in Mexico.
Several hundred other North American songbirds migrate to Mexico for the winter and return year after year to breed in the same places. They are called “neotropical migrants” since they actually spend more time below the border in tropical regions. No, they don’t carry a green card but they can be tracked on the website for eBird.org on beautiful digital maps as they flood north in spring. Western Tanagers are increasing in part because they favor forest edges. Our abundant forest clearing has created more habitat for this particular species.
Western Tanager is one of just a few Tanagers breeding above the Mexico border. It’s counterpart in the East is the brilliant red Scarlet Tanager. The other two species are found in the southwest- the electric red Summer Tanager and less fiery Hepatic Tanager. Summer Tanager is a breeding bird at the Kern River Preserve near Lake Isabella and has only rarely been seen in Tulare County due to its love of thick riparian corridors and our lack thereof.
There are well over 300 species of tanagers including some of the most colorful birds in the world, ranging throughout the Western hemisphere. Books of South American birds sport pages of colorful Tanagers in every imaginable hue. In recent decades, the new DNA technologies have caused some major shuffling of both bird and plant families, resulting in a shift of all North American Tanagers into the Cardinal family. So it’s a little crazy that our four Tanagers are not officially Tanagers anymore. Luckily the birds are still the same and do not really care what we call them. For a short video visit Birds of Ecuador: Tanagers on YouTube. You will be surprised not only by the variations in color, the fantastical names but also the numbers of species in the Amazon and the Andes. Then of course keep your eyes open and binoculars poised for our own Western Tanager.