Summer tanagers breed throughout the eastern United States south of southern Pennsylvania and northern Illinois, in the southwestern United States and in northern Mexico. They winter from central Mexico through northern South America, as far south as Bolivia and Brazil (Robinson 1996).
In summer in the eastern portion of its range, summer tanagers primarily inhabit open woodlands of mixed oak and other hardwood trees. In the west, they live in riparian woodlands of cottonwoods and willows. They are also sometimes found in orchards, parks and roadside trees. In the winter, they continue to inhabit open woodlands, as well as tall secondary growth, gallery forest, forest edge, shaded plantations, and trees in parks and gardens along city streets. In Mexico, summer tanagers inhabit humid evergreen forest and tropical deciduous forest. Summer tanagers are typically found at low elevations, though they winter as high as 1800 m in Panama. (Robinson 1996; Isler and Isler 1987)
Summer tanagers are medium-sized birds, though rather large in comparison to other tanagers. They measure approximately 17 cm long and weigh an average of 30 g. Males are bright rose or orange-red throughout the year, and are distinguished from the scarlet tanager because their plumage is paler--not an intense scarlet--and because the summer tanager's wings and tail are red rather than black. Adult male summer tanagers have no crest. Females are olive above and orange-yellow below. They have conspicuous narrow yellow edging on their wing coverts. Some females develop complete male pigmentation as they age. Juvenile summer tanagers resemble adult females, but males often develop distinctive patches of red during the first winter.
There are two recognized subspecies of summer tanagers. The subspecies P. r. cooperi has paler plumage and is found in the western part of the range. The subspecies P. r. rubra has shorter wings, tails and legs and breeds primarily in the eastern part of the range. Robinson 1996; Isler and Isler1987; Terres,1980)
Summer tanagers breed once annually, and raise one brood per summer. They are serially monogamous, that is, they keep one mate throughout each breeding season, but not necessarily in successive seasons. Breeding pairs form soon after arriving on the breeding grounds in the spring, and split up after the young disperse late in the breeding season. Male summer tanagers arrive on the breeding grounds in full song, usually a few days before females arrive. Courtship begins with frequent, sudden, energetic chases of the female by the male. Males may also display before the female, carrying food items and hopping about. Little else is known about summer tanager courtship.
Summer tanagers breed once annually, and raise one brood per summer. They serially monogamous and sexually mature at one year of age. Breeding pairs form soon after arriving on the breeding grounds, and split up after the young disperse late in the breeding season.
Nest building begins 2 to 4 weeks after the birds arrive on the breeding grounds in spring. The nest is usually built out on a horizontal branch about 2.5 to 10.5 m from the ground. The female builds the nest alone, though she is often accompanied by the male while searching for a site and suitable nest-building materials. The nest is constructed primarily of dried herbaceous vegetation, and lined with fine grasses. There seems to be some regional variation in the quality of summer tanager nests; birds in the eastern range usually build flimsy and ragged nests, while the nests of summer tanagers in the western part of the range are sturdy and well-constructed. (Robinson 1996; Isler and Isler 1987; Terres 1980)
Egg-laying begins immediately after the nest is completed. The female lays 3 to 4 eggs that are smooth and somewhat glossy, pale blue or pale green, and spotted reddish brown. Incubation is carried out by the female only and lasts 12 to 13 days. During this time, the male spends a lot of time resting and caring for his feathers. In some pairs, however, the male feeds the incubating female, who may beg him for food. The chicks are fed by both parents after hatching, though males may do so indirectly by first giving the food to the female, who then gives it to the chicks. The young are fed primarily whole food, though some regurgitated food is also given. After 8 to 10 days, the young leave the nest, and by day 10, they are can make short, fluttery flights. The adults attend the young for 2 to 4 weeks after fledging. (Robinson 1996; Isler and Isler 1987; Terres 1980)
The female lays 3 to 4 eggs, which she incubates for 12 to 13 days. During this time, the male may feed the female. Both parents feed the altricial chicks during the nestling stage, which lasts 8 to 10 days. The female also broods the chicks for at least four days after hatching. Both parents feed the chicks for 2 to 4 weeks after they fledge.
During the nestling stage, both parents sanitize the nest by removing fecal sacs. (Robinson 1996; Isler and Isler 1987; Terres 1980).
The longest recorded lifespan of a summer tanager is 5 years. There is very little information on survivorship and life span of this species (Robinson 1996).
Summer tanagers are usually solitary birds, except during the breeding and migratory seasons. Pairs are seldom seen by humans, as they tend to conceal themselves in the tops of the tallest trees. The song of the male is quite recognizable, being rich and musical, not buzzy or harsh like the song of the scarlet tanager. The male sings vigorously all day during the breeding season, especially while trying to attract females and establish a territory. Some females sing a garbled version of the males’ song. Both sexes give a loud, clicking call, which is used in various situations.
The summer tanager is migratory. Migratory flocks can be as large as 30 individuals, though it is not known if these flocks fly together or simply gather when on the ground. Tanagers sometimes join mixed-species flocks, especially at forest edges and fruiting trees.
Tanagers generally migrate at night, as shown by the presence of many TV tower casualties. They also sleep primarily at night, though they sometimes take brief naps during the day. Their flight is swift and direct. The summer tanager often sits still on its perch, and then moves in sudden bursts. Breeding pairs preen frequently, and individuals occasionally sunbathe.
Male summer tanagers defend their nest site and a feeding territory during the breeding season. After arrival on the breeding grounds, rival males give vigorous flying chases in competition for territory. There is some physical contact between males at this time. Males also engage in a lot of counter-singing at the beginning of the breeding season. During the incubation period, males have been observed chasing females back to the nest. Should the male hear the song of an intruder male within his territory, he will respond by searching him out (Robinson, 1996; Isler and Isler, 1987; Terres, 1980).
There is no data available on the home range of summer tanagers. Territory sizes have not been well-studied, but one study found territory sizes of 90,000 to 110,000 square meters (Robinson 1996).
Summer tanagers communicate using vocalizations and physical displays. Male summer tanagers defend their nest site and territory by singing and chasing rival males, sometimes coming into physical contact during these chases. They also engage in counter-singing at the beginning of the breeding season. This is the practice of singing in response to neighboring males. Males attract mates by singing and chasing the females. Summer tanagers have a musical song unlike the buzzy songs of other tanagers. They also use several call notes to communicate (Robinson, 1996; Isler and Isler, 1987; Terres, 1980).
Summer tanagers are primarily insectivorous, eating a wide variety of flying and non-flying insects, such as beetles (order Coleoptera), dragonflies (suborder Anisoptera), grubs, cicadas (family Cicadidae), grasshoppers, ants (family Formicidae), caterpillars, weevils and spiders (order Araneae). They also eat fruits such as blackberries, whortleberries, mulberries, pokeweed, citrus and bananas, especially during the late breeding season, migration and on the winter range. However, the primary components of summer tanagers’ diets are bees (superfamily Apoidea) and wasps. They frequently attack wasp nests until the wasps abandon their nest, leaving the larvae for the tanager to devour. Summer tanagers occasionally capture food on the ground, but forage primarily in the tops of trees, where adult bees and wasps are caught in flight. Once prey has been caught, tanagers take the insect back to a perch and beat it against the perch until it dies. By wiping wasps on a branch before eating them, tanagers removes the stingers and other inedible body parts. (Robinson, 1996; Isler and Isler, 1987; Terres, 1980)
Predation of summer tanagers has not been directly observed. However, summer tanagers have been seen reacting aggressively to blue jays, Cooper’s hawks, raccoons, squirrels and black rat snakes, suggesting that these are potential predators. Summer tanagers do mob predators, diving at them and calling vigorously. (Robinson 1996)
Summer tanagers affect the populations of the insects they eat. They also spread seeds of the plants whose fruits they eat. They host at least three species of external parasites, including a louse (Philopterus subflavescens) and two mites (Trombicula irritans and Sternostoma pirangae).
Summer tanagers eat insect species that some people consider to be pests, such as bees and wasps.
There are no known adverse affects of summer tanagers on humans.
The North American breeding population of summer tanagers has remained relatively steady, and there are no pressing concerns for protection of this species. They are not protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, but are protected by the U.S. Migratory Bird Act. The most significant human impact on this species is probably destruction of breeding habitat. However collision with television towers during nocturnal migrations is also a significant source of mortality.
There are two recognized subspecies of summer tanager: P. r. cooperi in the west, and P. r. rubra in the east. (Robinson 1996)
Summer tanagers are also known as beebirds, calico warblers, and crimson tanagers.
Kari Kirschbaum (author, editor), Animal Diversity Web.
Alicia Ivory (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.
living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.
uses sound to communicate
living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.
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.
Referring to an animal that lives in trees; tree-climbing.
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.
an animal that mainly eats meat
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.
An animal that eats mainly insects or spiders.
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.
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.
"many forms." A species is polymorphic if its individuals can be divided into two or more easily recognized groups, based on structure, color, or other similar characteristics. The term only applies when the distinct groups can be found in the same area; graded or clinal variation throughout the range of a species (e.g. a north-to-south decrease in size) is not polymorphism. Polymorphic characteristics may be inherited because the differences have a genetic basis, or they may be the result of environmental influences. We do not consider sexual differences (i.e. sexual dimorphism), seasonal changes (e.g. change in fur color), or age-related changes to be polymorphic. Polymorphism in a local population can be an adaptation to prevent density-dependent predation, where predators preferentially prey on the most common morph.
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.
Referring to something living or located adjacent to a waterbody (usually, but not always, a river or stream).
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).
defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement
the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.
uses sight to communicate
Isler, M.L. and P.R. Isler. The Tanagers: Natural History, Distribution and Identification. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington D.C., 1987.
Robinson, W.D. 1996. Summer Tanager (Piranga rubra). In The Birds of North America, No. 248 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.
Terres, J. The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1980.