4 Vibrant Tanager Species to Know

Discover the ins and outs of these four colorful migrant birds.

Learn all about tanagers with these quick looks at four North American tanager species.

Western Tanagers

With his red-orange head, yellow body and black wings, the male western tanager looks like a little ball of flame as he forages in coniferous forests for insects and berries. (The female’s dull yellow coloring is less eye-catching.) As their name hints, these are the western counterparts to scarlet tanagers. In summer, western tanagers can appear as far north as southeastern Alaska—farther north than any other tanager species. Attract these birds to your backyard with oranges, sugar water and native plants, which draw in bugs for tanagers to eat. Western tanagers have also been known to eat suet during cold snaps.   

Scarlet Tanagers

The male scarlet tanager loses his bright red coloring in fall, molting to an olive green.Judy Wilson (B&B reader)
Judy Wilson (B&B reader) The male scarlet tanager loses his bright red coloring in fall, molting to an olive green.

His bright red body makes the male scarlet tanager easier to spot in the open, but unfortunately for birders, this tanager likes to forage for insects high up in deciduous canopies. Scarlet tanagers spend half the year in the Midwest and the eastern parts of the United States, migrating to South America for winter. Because scarlet tanagers are often forced to nest near open habitats due to deforestation, they are susceptible
to brown-headed cowbirds that leave their eggs in tanager nests. Attract scarlet tanagers to your yard with grape jelly and oranges.

Summer Tanagers

This summer tanager is commonly found in southern woods. Lisa Swanson (B&B reader)
Lisa Swanson (B&B reader) Summer tanagers are commonly found in southern woods.

Watch out, bees! Although these brightly colored birds (males are a cardinal red and females mustard yellow) will eat most insects, their favorite meals are bees and wasps. Common in southern woods full of oak trees, summer tanagers will catch wasps and rub them against branches to remove their stingers before eating them. Afterward, they’ll eat the larvae left in the hive. To coax summer tanagers to your yard, try leaving out sweet treats like blackberries and overripe bananas, which will attract bees, too.

Hepatic Tanagers

Although hepatic tanagers are very widespread, trailing down into Argentina, they usually migrate north of the Mexican border only for the summer breeding season, during which they can be found in pine forests of the southwestern U.S. They eat mostly insects, such as caterpillars and beetles, but also enjoy berries, especially in late summer. Hepatic tanagers get their name from the male’s liverlike coloring.