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Scarlet Tanager
Piranga olivacea

The male Scarlet Tanager is one of the most brilliantly colored birds nesting in Tennessee. Nevertheless, he can be overlooked because of his unobtrusive behavior and preference for the forest canopy. The song of the Scarlet Tanager is reminiscent of a hoarse American Robin, and is similar to the song of the Summer Tanager, but the chik-burr call-note is distinctive. This tanager is a long distance migrant, flying from its breeding grounds across the east-central United States, to northwestern South America where it spends the winter. Scarlet Tanagers arrive in Tennessee by mid-April and usually departing by mid-October.

Description: Male and female Scarlet Tanagers look completely different. The breeding plumage of the male is a brilliant scarlet-red with black wings and a black tail. The female is overall greenish-yellow with darker wings. At the end of the breeding season, males undergo a complete molt and look like the female, but with black wings and tail.
Length: 7"
Wingspan: 11.5"
Weight: 0.98 oz

Voice: The song is a series of hoarse robin-like musical phrases. Sometimes described as sounding like a robin with a sore throat. The call is a unique chik-burr.

Similar Species:

  • Summer Tanager males are a duller red with red wings and tail; the female is overall dull yellow. Summer Tanagers have a stouter bill.
  • The song of the Summer Tanager tends to be less hoarse, but similar to the Scarlet Tanager's song, however, their picky-tucky-tuck call, is distinctive.
  • Female orioles have white wing-bars.

Habitat: Scarlet Tanagers require large continuous mature forest blocks for successful breeding. They winter in montane evergreen forests.

Diet: Primarily insects, with some worms, snails, fruits, and berries.

Nesting and reproduction: Scarlet Tanagers are monogamous, and raise one brood in a season.

Clutch Size: Usually 4 eggs, with a range of 1 to 6 eggs.

Incubation: The female incubates the eggs for 13 to 14 days, and is frequently fed by the male.

Fledging: Both parents feed the nestlings insects and fruit, and the young fledge in about 15 days.

Nest: The female builds the shallow nest of twigs and weed stems, and lines it with fine grasses. The nest is placed on a horizontal branch, often far from the tree trunk, often among a cluster of leaves. Nest heights in Tennessee range from 7 feet to 40 feet, with an average of 23 feet.

Status in Tennessee: This summer resident can be found across the state in mature hardwood and mixed hardwood-pine forests. It is rare in the western and middle parts of the state, but fairly common in the east. Scarlet Tanagers can be found in the state from mid-April until mid-October, and their numbers have been increasing in Tennessee since the beginning of the Breeding Bird Survey in 1966.

Dynamic map of Scarlet Tanager eBird observations in Tennessee

Fun Facts:

  • Scarlet Tanagers join mixed-species flocks with flycatchers, antbirds, woodcreepers, and resident tropical tanagers when on the wintering grounds in South America.
  • Female Scarlet Tanagers also sing. Their song is softer and less harsh, and sung in response to her mate or when she is gathering nest material.

Obsolete English Names: black-winged red bird

Best places to see in Tennessee: Scarlet Tanagers are most easily seen in the spring before the trees leaf out.

For more information:

National Audubon Society Historical Account


Nicholson, C. P. 1997. Atlas of Breeding Birds of Tennessee. Univ. Tennessee Press, Knoxville.

Mowbray, Thomas B. 1999. Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea), The Birds of North America (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.

Sibley, D. A. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. A. A. Knopf, New York, NY.