Head South to See Summer Tanagers

Seeing—or hearing—a colorful summer tanager is a red-letter day because these birds aren’t as nearly abundant as other songbirds.

summer tanagerCourtesy Cassie Brooke

How to Identify Summer Tanagers

The male summer tanager is the only bird in America with completely rose-red coloring. Unlike a scarlet tanager that is red only in spring and summer, a male summer tanager keeps his bright colors in all seasons. Their vibrant, flashy plumage lights up a forest. Tanagers also have a distinctive bill shape. Moderately thick, it’s ideal for feeding on large insects and small fruits.

Discover 8 surprising facts about tanagers.

female summer tanagerCourtesy Natalie Cavalieri

Female Summer Tanager

Unlike the bright red males, females are a rich mustard yellow color. Check out the 4 vibrant tanager bird species you should know.

juvenile summer tanagerCourtesy Debbie McKenzie

Juvenile Summer Tanager

Juvenile summer tanagers aren’t even illustrated in most bird guide books, because they wear this gray-brown plumage for such a brief time. On the bird above, gray-brown streaks of juvenile plumage are being replaced by the yellow feathers of its first-year immature plumage. In their first fall season, as they migrate to the tropics, young males are completely yellowish like adult females.

juvenile summer tanagerCourtesy Kimberly Lerbs

Before they migrate north the next spring, they go through a partial molt, replacing some yellow feathers with red ones. One-year-old males are patchy red and yellow, and no two birds show the exact same pattern. After their next molt, they have the solid rose-red coloring of the adult male.

Western tanagers are fiery, eye-catching fliers.

Summer Tanager Song

All across the southern United States, from California to the Carolinas, a slow, lazy robin-like song is a clear sign that a summer tanager is present. Even if it isn’t singing, you may hear its characteristic call-note, a snappy pick-i-tuck. This species sounds the same across their range.

Learn about why birds sing in spring.

how to attract birdsRolfnussbaumer.com

How to Attract Summer Tanagers

A nickname for the summer tanager is “bee bird” because it eats so many wasps and bees, sometimes catching them in midair, before rubbing them against branches to remove the stingers. To attract this species, plant native flowers that attract flying insects. These birds also enjoy overripe fruits like bananas and berries and may be drawn to birdbaths or other sources of water.

Feed grape jelly to orioles and tanagers.

Summer Tanager Range and Habitat

Interestingly, they favor different habitats in different regions. In the Southeast they are common in oak and pine forests, while those in the Southwest concentrate in tall cottonwood trees along lowland rivers. In fall they migrate to tropical wintering grounds that stretch all the way from Mexico to South America. During spring migration, summer tanagers and other North American songbirds have a long flight across the Gulf of Mexico.

Next, check out 8 types of orioles to look for in North America.

Summer Tanager range Map

Lori Vanover
Lori Vanover is the senior digital editor for Birds & Blooms. She enjoys growing vegetables in containers and raised beds and watching for birds in her backyard.