Piranga olivaceascarlet tanager

Geographic Range

Scarlet tanagers breed in eastern North America and winter in northern and western South America, from Panama in the north as far south as Bolivia. The breeding range is from southern Canada as far west as Manitoba and east to the Maritime provinces and south through the western Carolinas, northern Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, and much of Arkansas. The breeding range corresponds with the extent of the eastern deciduous forest biome.


Scarlet tanagers are found mainly in mature deciduous forests or mixed deciduous forests with hemlock (Tsuga) and pine (Pinus). They can also be found in younger deciduous forests and sometimes in heavily wooded suburban areas. In the Smoky Mountains they are found from 425 to 1525 meters of elevation, in other mountainous parts of their range they are found at all elevations in suitable habitat. Habitat use in their winter range in South America is poorly known, but they are generally found in mid-elevation evergreen forests, from 100 and 1,300 meters on the eastern slope of the Andes. (Mowbray, 1999)

  • Range elevation
    1525 (high) m
    5003.28 (high) ft

Physical Description

Scarlet tanagers are 16 to 17 cm long with a wingspan of 25 to 29 cm. They weigh from 23.5 to 33 grams during the breeding season and from 32 to 38 grams during migration. Mature males in breeding season are bright red with black wings and tails, in the winter they resemble females except for their black wings and tail. Females and immature birds are dull, olive green above and straw-yellow below with dark wings and tail. (Mowbray, 1999)

Females, immature individuals, and males in winter plumage are sometimes confused with female and immature summer tanagers (Piranga rubra) or western tanagers (Piranga ludoviciana), with which they sometimes co-occur. Some details of plumage color help to distinguish these species, as do their distinctive calls. Scarlet tanagers use a hoarse "chip-churr" call, while western tanagers use a soft "pri-tic" call and summer tanagers use a staccato "pit-i-tuck" call. (Mowbray, 1999)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male more colorful
  • Range mass
    23.5 to 38 g
    0.83 to 1.34 oz
  • Range length
    16 to 17 cm
    6.30 to 6.69 in
  • Range wingspan
    25 to 29 cm
    9.84 to 11.42 in


Scarlet tanagers form monogamous pairs for breeding each season. No studies of banded birds have confirmed that pair bonds last beyond the breeding season. Males use a silent courtship display in which they fly to exposed branches below a female and extend their wings and neck to expose their scarlet back. Females are apparently attracted to the male's scarlet color as well as their posture and movements. (Mowbray, 1999)

Breeding occurs from May to August. Females build shallow, saucer-shaped nests in a week or less from twigs, rootlets, coarse grass, and weed stems, and line them with fine grasses and pine needles. They are placed anywhere from 4-75 feet above ground. Four to 5, usually 4, pale blue-green eggs with brown speckles are incubated for 13-14 days. Though they are brooded by females only, both parents bring food to the nest. The nest is kept clean and the droppings are swallowed or carried away in the bill. The young are able to leave the nest about 9-15 days after hatching. (Mowbray, 1999)

  • Average eggs per season
  • Average time to hatching
    13 days
  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female



Males usually arrive from their winter stay in South America slightly before the females and stake out territories in choice tall trees. To warn the other males away, each sings frequently from his own spot with songs such as :"querit, queer, queery, querit, queer" along with the call note "CHIP-churr or CHICK-bur". Females are attracted to the singing males, who court potential mates by hopping about on low perches in woods near the ground, spreading their wings and displaying their scarlet backs. The males often feed their partners as the nesting season approaches. (Mowbray, 1999)

Communication and Perception

Food Habits

Scarlet tanagers eat insects while foraging in treetops, in shrubs or on the ground. Preferred foods include aphids, nut weevils, wood borers, leaf beatles, cicadas, scale insects, dragonflies, ants, termites, caterpillars of gypsy moths, parasitic wasps, bees, mulberries, June-berries, huckleberries and other wild fruits. (Mowbray, 1999)

  • Animal Foods
  • insects
  • terrestrial non-insect arthropods
  • Plant Foods
  • fruit


Adult scarlet tanagers are eaten by birds of prey, including eastern screech owls, long-eared owls, short-eared owls and merlins. Eggs and nestling predators include blue jays, grackles, American crows, squirrels, chipmunks, and snakes.

Scarlet tanagers mob most predators, diving and swooping around them while calling at them. However, scarlet tanagers respond to American crows and merlins by becoming quiet and watchful, apparently in an attempt to be inconspicuous.

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Scarlet tanagers eat insects that some humans may consider to be pests.

  • Positive Impacts
  • controls pest population

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

There are no known negative effects of scarlet tanagers on humans.

Conservation Status

Scarlet tanagers are abundant and widespread, requiring no special conservation status.


Tanya Dewey (author), Animal Diversity Web.

Robin Street (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.



living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map


living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

World Map


uses sound to communicate


young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.


forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds


Having one mate at a time.


having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.


rainforests, both temperate and tropical, are dominated by trees often forming a closed canopy with little light reaching the ground. Epiphytes and climbing plants are also abundant. Precipitation is typically not limiting, but may be somewhat seasonal.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


living in residential areas on the outskirts of large cities or towns.


uses touch to communicate


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


Living on the ground.


the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.


uses sight to communicate


Terres, John K. The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 1980.

Mowbray, T. 1999. Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea). Birds of North America, 479: 1-14. Accessed February 04, 2008 at http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/479.