Summer Tanager Family

Early this afternoon, on a very warm, sunny day, a bird that looked golden-brown in the sun flew in a flashy way across our back yard to perch briefly in a pine. It flew again right away, to an oak, a little deeper inside the shade of the woods, where it sat on a branch and quivered its wings, begging to be fed. 

It was a juvenile Summer Tanager. Beside it on the same branch sat a rose-red adult Summer Tanager, feeding a second juvenile also quivering its wings.

For the next hour or more, I watched as the Summer Tanager juveniles flew from tree to tree around the yard, and the male parent hunted and fed them. There might have been more than two, but two was all I saw at the same time. I didn’t see a female parent, but she might have been around. Her coloring doesn’t stand out as well as the male – who’s impossible to miss. The male sang from time to time, and I heard a few pik-a-tuk calls now and then. 

At one point, one of the juvenile tanagers flew to a shepherd’s crook on the edge of our deck and perched there for several moments, in perfect view. Its color was mostly yellow all over, but not the deep, full yellow of a female. Its plumage was mixed with olive, brown, buffy-brown and gray; and mottled on the crown of the head. It sat in full sun, highlighting the yellow feathers.

As it sat on the crook, it snapped several times at flying insects in the air and seemed to be catching something at least part of the time, wiping its bill on the edge of the crook after one – or it might have been subduing an insect before eating it. Summer Tanagers specialize in capturing bees and wasps, and they may beat an insect and remove a stinger by wiping the prey on a branch before eating it. 

At least this one was getting in practice. Once it flew up to catch an insect out of the air, and then back to the perch on the crook. But soon after that, it flew up and away – with sunlight pouring through the yellow feathers, looking golden-brown again.

We’ve been lucky enough to have a pair of Summer Tanagers around our back yard all this spring and early summer, hearing their songs and calls often, and now and then catching glimpses of the rose-red male and yellow female. It’s a happy feeling to know that they must have nested somewhere near and that the nest has been successful. 

Summer Tanager fledglings are barely able to fly when they leave the nest. They’re fed by the parents for at least three weeks, and during this time stay mostly hidden in the forest canopy, and are difficult to observe. For this reason, it’s not known exactly how soon the young can acquire their own food. Even after they’ve learned to fly well, they continue to follow the adults and beg to be fed.* So it may be that the juveniles I watched today fledged at least two or three weeks ago and are just now becoming able to fly well, and beginning to capture their own food, while still begging to be fed by the parents.

Summer Tanagers are neotropical migrants that spend the summer breeding season in the eastern and southern U.S. and Mexico, and winters in Central and South America. They are handsome, robust songbirds with rather long, sturdy bills. The male’s song is a lilting series of musical phrases, similar to a robin’s song but with its own quality that’s easy to get to know. The calls of Summer Tanagers are clicking pik-a-tuk phrases that often lace through the foliage as the birds move, a lovely, evocative summer sound. 

Robinson, W.D. (2020). Summer Tanager (Piranga rubra), version 1.0. In Birds of the World, (A.F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

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