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WILD THING

That’s No Cardinal

Have you been fooled by a SUMMER TANAGER?


Texans sometimes tell me — as the state ornithologist — about a bird they describe as “a cardinal without a crest.” The bird in question, the summer tanager, is also red and about the same size, but that’s where the similarities end. 

The summer tanager is known by several nicknames, including “bee bird” for its fondness for eating bees. No worries for beekeepers — these birds won’t deplete bee populations. Bees are just one menu item for the summer tanager, which eats a wide variety of other insects, fruits and berries found in our woodlands. In fact, no species of bird in the U.S. eats only bees.

Summer tanagers depart Texas in the fall for tropical wintering grounds in central and northern South America. Their return to raise a family each April is often more obvious to our ears than our eyes. Their distinctive ticky-tuck call-notes from the canopy have led to yet another nickname: the “ticky-tuck bird.” Learn that call and try it out in the woods — you’ll be amazed at the response from nearby summer tanagers.

These birds are largely secretive, though, gleaning pesky bugs off the leaves of high branches. To get a glimpse of one at eye-level in your yard, provide native berry-producing shrubs (such as elderberry or beautyberry) that pop in mid- to late summer. Tanagers will devour the berries when ripe.

Female summer tanagers aren’t red like their male counterparts, but rather a shade of yellow reminiscent of spicy mustard. Young males are mustard-colored, too. The first-year males you see in spring haven’t completed their first full molt into adult plumage and sport a blotchy mix of mustard yellow and ketchup red. This odd calico appearance gives them another nickname: calico warbler. Though not classified as a warbler, the tanager sings a beautiful song that consists of varied warbles and whistles, somewhat similar to the song of a robin.

The modifier “summer” for this species works for birders who live in the breeding range of this species, but what about when the bird’s overwintering? Spotting a summer tanager on the wintering grounds in January can cause a bit of confusion.

My wife and I are birders, and this scenario played out for us in Mexico.

“Which species of bird are you looking at?” I asked her.

“Well, it’s a summer tanager.”

“Hey, it’s winter!” Another “dad joke” win for me.

Seasonal terminology aside, this is one dapper-looking bird you’ll love to discover, whether as an all-red male or an all-mustard female.

 James Childress

Common name:

Summer tanager

scientific name:

Piranga rubra

habitat:

Open, mature woodlands

Diet:

Bees, wasps, terrestrial invertebrates, fruit

Did you know?

Breeding tanagers have to chase off cowbirds to prevent them from laying eggs in tanager nests

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