Scarlet Tanager Fact File

Piranga olivacea








Wild 12 years

Captive 12 years




Conservation Status


Least Concern

The scarlet tanager is a small bird which undertakes a yearly migration from the breeding sites in North America to the wintering sites in South and Central America.

These birds are primarily insectivorous and spend their time high in the canopy seeking insects.

They create a cup shaped nest where the female will incubate 2-5 eggs.

Populations of scarlet tanagers are believed to be stable with small threats presented by capture for the wildlife trade and collisions with man-made structures.

Read on to learn more about these brilliant birds.


Their name is drawn from the scarlet plumage taken on by the male during the breeding season. In summer males undergo a molt and take on the same plumage as the female.

Females and males not in breeding plumage are primarily yellowish-olive with the underside being a lighter color. The wings and tail of the female are brownish compared to black in the male. This trait of the male and female having differing appearances is known as sexual dimorphism.

The stout bill comes to a point at its end. It is rounded and thick.

At the end of the body is a short and broad tail.

An average scarlet tanager will measure 17cm (7in) long with a wingspan of 29cm (11.5in) across.


They are carnivores and feed primarily on invertebrates. Occasionally they feed on small amounts of fruits and berries. These may be caught in the trees or in flight.

Their bright coloration is partially a result of their diet.

Some insects are bashed against a branch to kill them.

Scarlet Tanager


Scarlet tanagers range across much of North, South and Central America with a number of populations on islands in the Caribbean.

Here they can be found in the following countries - Anguilla; Antigua and Barbuda; Aruba; Bahamas; Barbados; Belize; Bermuda; Bolivia; Brazil; Canada; Cayman Islands; Colombia; Cuba; Costa Rica; Dominica; Dominican Republic; Ecuador; El Salvador; Guadeloupe; Guatemala; Haiti; Honduras; Martinique; Mexico; Montserrat; Nicaragua; Panama; Peru; Puerto Rico; Saint Kitts and Nevis; Saint Lucia; Saint Vincent and the Grenadines; Trinidad and Tobago; Turks and Caicos Islands; the United States and Venezuela.

On rare occasions the species has been sighted as far North as Alaska.


They make their home in forest habitats. Summer is spent mostly in deciduous forests where they breed before moving to tropical rainforest in the winter.

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In summer the birds arrive at the breeding grounds in the north where they will raise a single brood of young. Pairs are thought to be monogamous for a single breeding season.

Males will hop on a branch and show off the contrast between their red back and black wings to try and attract a female.

They deposit the eggs in a cup-shaped nest which is formed from stems and roots. Each clutch includes 2-5 eggs. These are colored greenish blue and have dark markings. Females complete the two week incubation on their own.

Young fledge within 10 to 15 days of hatching. Males will assist with feeding the young. After leaving the nest the parents provide another two weeks of care.

During their first breeding season the males are more orange than scarlet.

Their nest is parasitized by the brown-headed cowbird which deposits its own eggs in the nest of the scarlet tanager which subsequently incubates the eggs and raises the chicks.


The scarlet tanger undertakes a migration each year. They will move from breeding sites in Canada and the United States to Central and South America where they spend the winter.

They undertake a behavior known as anting during which they rub ants over their feathers causing them to release formic acid. This drives out parasites such as lice and helps to keep them in good condition.

Their call is a chick-burr or horse chip. It has been compared to a robin with a sore throat.

During their migration they travel alone or in a small flock. These flocks are often a mix of various species of birds completing the same migration. At the wintering grounds they are primarily solitary.

Scarlet Tanager

Predators and Threats

Natural predators of the scarlet tanager include birds of prey such as owls. Young have a larger range of predators including squirrels, chipmunks and snakes.

Most attempts to remove a predator is to dive at and swoop them. With American crows and merlins though they will become quiet and attempt to be inconspicuous.

At present the population of the scarlet tanager is believed to be stable with the species enjoying an extremely large range.

Small numbers may be captured for the wildlife trade and they suffer from collisions with man made structures.

Quick facts

There are over 230 species of tanager in the western hemisphere but only four complete a regular migration from the neotropics to North America.

Scarlet Tanager

Photo Credits

Top and Middle Two

Andrew Weitzel from Lancaster, PA, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Middle One and Bottom

Félix Uribe, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Burnie, D., 2011. Animal. 3rd ed. London: DK

Alderton, D. and Barrett, P., 2019. The complete illustrated encyclopedia of birds of the world. Lorenz Books.

BirdLife International. 2016. Piranga olivaceaThe IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T22722466A94767758. Downloaded on 03 September 2021. 2021. Scarlet Tanager - South Dakota Birds and Birding. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 3 September 2021].

Audubon. 2021. Scarlet Tanager. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 3 September 2021]. 2021. Scarlet Tanager -Piranga olivacea | Wildlife Journal Junior. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 3 September 2021]. 2021. Scarlet Tanager | Bird Gallery | Houston Audubon. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 3 September 2021].

Tourism Windsor Essex Pelee Island. 2021. SCARLET TANAGER - Tourism Windsor Essex Pelee Island. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 3 September 2021].

Missouri Department of Conservation. 2021. Scarlet Tanager. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 3 September 2021].

National Parks Service. 2021. Scarlet Tanager. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 3 September 2021]. 2021. Scarlet Tanager, Great Lakes Bird Conservation. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 3 September 2021].

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