Piranga olivacea, the formal name for the scarlet tanager, has such bright plumage it should be hard to miss. With a brilliant red body and head, which is even more highlighted by its black wings and tail, it reminds me of some royal guard’s parade uniform. Yeah, but still I had a hard time finding one… I only positively saw one the other day at Schenley Park in Pittsburgh.
According to the Cornell Lab’s entry on the tanager, I’m not the only one who has trouble spotting them. They often stay up high in the trees, which by May in SW Pennsylvania are now mostly shrouded in foliage again. By luck, this guy was down on a low branch only a few feet from the ground. As he hopped between branches, it was now impossible to miss his bright color. Soon though, he flew back up to the tree tops where, with some difficulty, I was able to find him again.
Take a look again at his species name, olivacea. Sounds more like something that should be colored olive or green, doesn’t it? In fact when it’s not looking for mates, that’s what the scarlet tanager looks like, a dull yellow-green but still with the black wings and tail. This is also what the immature and females look like too.
The other interesting thing about this bird is its song. It’s pretty similar to one of our most common birds, the American robin, Turdus migratorius. According to my Peterson Field Guide to Bird Songs, both songs are “mostly different separate phrases in clusters.” The tanager is “finely burry” while the robin is “medium-high, musical.” Unfortunately, with my limited experience I sure couldn’t tell the difference in the field! However, after listening to recordings later, I could tell see what the author was talking about. The tanager is sometimes described as sounding like a robin with a sore throat. If you’re interested in actually seeing the difference, check out these two images below. Both are from the Cornell’s lab’s excellent bird sound collection.
The first is the robin’s typical day time song:
And this is the tanager’s usual song:
Now the difference is a bit more obvious. The robin’s song is more complex with more up and down. The tanager has more of a buzz, or burry quality (the thick lines). This is what makes it sound like it’s been smoking too much. The other sound that helps me tell the difference is the tanager has a ‘chip-bur’ call that the robin lacks. The robin has more of a ‘cheep kuk kuk’ call, along with whinnies and other sounds.
So that’s just a little bit I learned about a bird that is common in our area but I don’t often see. Next time you’re in the woods in the spring, check those tall trees for a bright red singer.
By the way, if you want to see and hear more songs, check out Cornell’s Macaulay Library. It has songs, videos, and photos of all kinds of animals going all the way back to 1929!
Cover image courtesy of Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren