The only completely red bird in North America, the strawberry-colored male Summer Tanager is an eye-catching sight against the green leaves of the forest canopy. The mustard-yellow female is harder to spot, though both sexes have a very distinctive chuckling call note. Fairly common during the summer, these birds migrate as far as the middle of South America each winter. All year long they specialize in catching bees and wasps on the wing, somehow avoiding being stung by their catches.
Summer Tanagers are medium-sized, chunky songbirds with big bodies and large heads. They have large, thick, blunt-tipped bills.Adult male Summer Tanagers are entirely bright red. Females and immature males are bright yellow-green—yellower on the head and underparts and slightly greener on the back and wings. The bill is pale. Molting immature males can be patchy yellow and red.
Very similar to the Red Tanager (Piranga flava) but it has a blackish beak on top. The males are distinguished because the red is brighter and pink in the Red Piranga and the female is more greenish above and bright below. In the hand it can be seen that the outermost primary feather is the same as the two adjacent feathers, not shorter as in P. flava.
Two subspecies are recognized P. r. cooperi and P. r. rubra which are distinguished by the intensity of their coloration and because the males of the cooperi breed are larger.
Molecular and genetic analyzes reveal that the species of the genus Piranga form a monophyletic group with the species of the genera Habia and Chlorothraupis. The subspecies proposed under the name ochracea is a synonym of the cooperi breed.
This species breeds from the southwestern and eastern United States to northern Mexico and winters from central and southern Mexico to northern South America. In Colombia we find the rubra subspecies up to 2700 m above sea level throughout the country but especially in the Western Cordillera. It has also been registered in San Andrés y Providencia and on Malpelo Island.
They breed near gaps and edges of open forests, particularly of deciduous trees or mixed pine-oak woodlands. In the Southwest, look for them along streams among willows, cottonwoods, mesquite, or saltcedar.
In the breeding areas it feeds mainly on arthropods such as bees, wasps, cycads, grasshoppers, beetles, ants, spiders, caterpillars and dragonflies. It also feeds on fruits, although to a lesser extent. In winter areas it also feeds mainly on arthropods and among the fruits that it incorporates in its diet, some species of the genera myconia, ficus, cecropia and others of species of the Loranthaceae family have been recorded.
Its reproduction period covers the months between May and August. The nest is cup-shaped and built only by the female with dry herbaceous vegetation and fine grasses. The nest is built on a horizontal branch at a height that varies from 2.5 to 15 meters. It lays 3 to 4 pale blue or greenish-blue eggs strongly dotted with reddish brown, which the female incubates for 11 to 12 days. Both parents take care of feeding the chicks.
In winter areas it remains solitary, apparently it is a territorial bird and is sometimes seen in mixed flocks. Generally, forages in the foliage of tall trees where it is observed making short exits from a perch to capture prey on the fly or on the leaves. Occasionally forages on fruit trees and has also been observed following legionary ants. Summer Tanagers tend to stay fairly high in the forest canopy, where they sit still and then sally out to catch flying insects in midair, or move slowly along tree branches to glean food. Males have a sweet, whistling song similar to an American Robin; both sexes give a distinctive pit-ti-tuck call note.
Its status is of least concern, although in the United States it is considered a vulnerable species due to the destruction of tropical forests.
The Summer Tanager is a bee and wasp specialist. It catches these insects in flight and kills them by beating them against a branch. Before eating a bee, the tanager rubs it on the branch to remove the stinger. Summer Tanagers eat larvae, too: first they get rid of the adults, and then they tear open the nest to get the grubs.
Like most birds that migrate long distances, the Summer Tanager puts on large fat deposits to fuel its long flight. In one study, tanagers arriving in Panama had enough fat to fly an estimated additional 890 km (553 mi).
Summer Tanagers are closely related to several other North American birds in the genus Piranga, including Scarlet and Western tanagers. Taxonomists used to place this genus in the same family as the true tanagers, but they now consider Summer Tanagers and their relatives to be part of the cardinal family instead.
In places where both Summer and Scarlet tanagers live, the Summer Tanager breeds in shorter and more open woodlands. In the West, Western and Hepatic tanagers use coniferous forests at higher elevations, while Summer Tanagers breed in lowlands along streams.
The oldest Summer Tanager on record was a male, and at least 7 years, 11 months old when he was recaptured and rereleased during banding operations in Texas in 1986.
Botero, J. E., E. Botero, A. M. López, R. Espinosa, G. Lentino. 2012. Piranga rubra. Pp 509-511. In: Naranjo, L. G., J. D. Amaya, D. Eusse-González and Y. Cifuentes-Sarmiento (Editors). Guide of Migratory Species of Biodiversity in Colombia. Birds. Vol 1. Ministries of Environment and Sustainable Development / WWF. Colombia. Bogotá, D.C. Colombia. 708p.
Avibase (2014). Species factsheet: Piranga rubra Downloaded from http://avibase.bsc-eoc.org/species.jsp?lang=EN&avibaseid=8FD77B9372A01106 on 01/11/2014.
Orenstein, R. & D. Brewer. Piranga rubra. Pp 311 In: Del-Hoyo, J., Elliot, A. and Christie D. A. 2011. Handbook of the Birds of the Wold. Vol 16. Tanagers to NewWorld Blackbirds. Lynx editions. Barcelona. 894p.
IUCN 2014. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.1. Downloaded April 4, 2014.
Hilty, S. L. and W. L. Brown. 2001. Guide to the Birds of Colombia. Princetn. Univ. Press, Princeton, NJ