Summer Tanager vs Scarlet Tanager: ID Challenge

Updated: Feb. 21, 2024

It's undoubtedly a tricky ID for birders: summer tanager vs scarlet tanager. Here's how to tell these bright red songbirds apart.

Which Red Tanager Are You Seeing?

When you’re out birding and you see a flash of red, your first assumption might be that your mystery red bird is a northern cardinal. However, if you know you haven’t spotted a cardinal, the ID’s can get a bit trickier—especially when it comes to two similar-looking tanagers. Here’s how to tell the difference between a summer tanager vs a scarlet tanager.

Scarlet Tanager Identification Tips

North American Bird Species: Scarlet Tanager, Piranga OlivaceaAGAMI stock/Getty Images
Adult male scarlet tanager

The bold and brilliantly colored scarlet tanager is widespread in the eastern U.S. and southeastern Canada in summer. Adult males are red with solid black wings and tails. These birds are red in spring and summer, molting to olive tones after breeding season. Female scarlet tanagers are olive-yellow all over with grayish wings and tails.

Not typical feeder birds (although they’ll sometimes stop by feeders for oranges), scarlet tanagers mostly eat insects. They’ll also dine on wild fruits and berries. To identify a scarlet tanager by ear, listen for a hoarse, whistled song with phrases in a rapid pattern. Sometimes, the bird’s song is described as an American robin with a sore throat. Its call is a chik-burr.

Learn all about the five tanager species found in North America.

Summer Tanager Identification Tips

Summer TanagerPatrick Gijsbers/Getty Images
Adult male summer tanager

Birders spot summer tanagers in the southeastern U.S. and all through the South into California in summer. Adult males are solid red all over, lacking the scarlet tanager’s black wings. In another key difference between summer and scarlet tanagers, summer tanagers keep that coloring year-round. They’re the only all-red birds that are widespread in North America.

Female summer tanagers are yellow all over with a pink or pale-colored bill.

Similarly to scarlet tanagers, summer tanagers eat mostly insects. They’ll dine on fruits and berries occasionally, but they’re especially known for eating bees and wasps.

To identify a summer tanager by ear, listen for a low, lazy and robinlike song. Its call note is a snappy pick-i-tuck.

Now that you know the difference between a summer tanager vs a scarlet tanager, learn how to identify the sunset colored western tanager.

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