Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea)


Life History & Michigan History


If you have ever seen a brilliant flash of red flying high through the branches while strolling through a forest it is most likely you caught a glimpse of one of Michigan's neotropical migrants, the Scarlet Tanager. Over 250 species of tanagers can be found in South America. The scarlet tanager is the only one of these species to summer in Michigan.


Scarlet tanagersAs their name implies, the males are a bright scarlet red with black wings during the breeding season, while the females tend to be a more camouflaging olive-green. Even with their bright coloring, male scarlet tanagers can often be hard to observe. They prefer to live in mature forests with a high percentage of oaks. Most of their time is spent foraging among the upper branches and leaves. Their primary foods include a good helping of caterpillars, moths and beetles. Scarlet tanagers are considered very beneficial to humans because they consume many insect pests. Some people have even called them the "guardians of the oaks".


Scarlet tanagers are wide spread throughout Michigan, but may be limited in some areas. These birds prefer larger (ten acres or more), mature (older) forests for nesting. Forest fragmentation has reduced available nesting territory in fast developing areas. Tanagers are also susceptible to cowbird parasitism. Female cowbirds lay their eggs in tanager nests, allowing the tanagers to raise the cowbird young. These young cowbirds often out-compete the young tanagers, greatly reducing their chance of survival.


One of the best methods to spy these birds is to find a mature hardwood forest with lots of oaks and watch the canopy quietly. Viewers may want to recline or lay down to reduce strain on your neck. After a short time, you too might catch a flash of scarlet among the green.

Non-DNR Links


Piranga olivacea (University of Michigan, Museum of Zoology)


Identification Tips & More (USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center)