Western Tanagers Are Fiery, Eye-Catching Fliers

During migration, flocks of western tanagers pass through valleys, plains, and foothills. Learn what the males and females look like and hear their song.

Bnbbyc17 Eric Sydenstricker 2Courtesy Eric Sydenstricker

How to Identify Western Tanagers

Birders in the west are in the right area but may need luck to spot the flashy feathers of western tanagers. With bright red heads, vibrant yellow bodies, and black wings with prominent wing bars and black tails, males resemble a bright flickering flame. They measure 7-1/4 inches long with a wingspan of  11-1/2 inches. Despite the bold field marks, these birds are hard to find, often hiding in the treetops of western conifer forests.

“Western tanagers are more often heard than seen at our place,” says Sally Roth, lifelong naturalist and author who lives amid a dense pine and spruce forest in the high Rockies of northern Colorado. “When I hear one singing, I lift my binoculars to find it,” Sally says. “That color is unmistakable! It sure catches your eye against the green of the trees.”

Discover surprising facts about tanagers.

Female western tanagerCourtesy Rachel Bauer
Female western tanager

Female Western Tanagers

Females and young males are less showy, sporting muted yellow bodies with black wings and a grey back. Check out 4 vibrant tanager species you should know.

What Do Western Tanagers Eat?

As western tanagers arrive from Mexico and Central America during spring migration, they seek extra fuel in backyard offerings of dried and fresh fruit, especially orange halves. They may also visit sugar water feeders and eat grape jelly. Sally sees one or two western tanagers at her feeders each spring. “But once they claim their nesting territory, they aren’t interested in the feeder—there are too many tasty caterpillars around,” she says.

Like orioles, western tanagers consume mostly insects once breeding season begins. Protein-packed grasshoppers, wasps, ants, termites and beetles are favorites. The birds nab bugs in midair or carefully pluck them from foliage, branches and flowers as they forage through trees and shrubs.

Western Tanager Song

The male is extremely protective over his breeding area. He belts out a robinlike song, full of rising and falling whistles, to stake his claim.

Bird songs provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Western Tanager Nest and Eggs

Meanwhile, a female scouts out a nesting site almost as soon as she arrives at the breeding grounds. She swiftly flies through open tree canopies until she finds a suitable spot to raise a family. Nest-building duties are the female’s job, although the male is never far away. Four or five days after she begins building, the pair has a brand-new twig home that is filled in and lined with materials such as bark, moss, stems, grasses, pine needles and feathers. The female lays three to five bluish-green eggs with irregular brown spots.

Learn about 8 different kinds of bird nests and how to spot them.

249508155 1 Sylvia Hooper Bnb Bypc2020Courtesy Sylvia Hooper
Western tanager on a birdbath 

How to Attract Western Tanagers

A backyard filled with trees is the best way to encourage western tanagers to call your landscape home or stop by for a quick snack. When they’re passing through during fall migration, berry trees and shrubs like serviceberry, blackberry and elderberry help to fill them up. Birdbaths, especially those with moving water, lure western tanagers and many other species throughout summer and during spring and fall migrations.

Western Tanager Range Map and Habitat

This species breeds as far north as Canada’s Northwest Territories and may spend as little as two months in the brisk locale before heading back to the tropics. Look for them in evergreen forests in summer and in any kinds of woodlands, riversides, or even deserts during migration.

Western Tanager Bird SpeciesRange maps provided by Kaufman Field Guides, the official field guide of Birds & Blooms.

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Kirsten Schrader
Kirsten is the executive editor of Birds & Blooms. She's been with the brand in various roles since 2007. She has many favorite birds (it changes with the seasons), but top picks include the red-headed woodpecker, Baltimore oriole and rose-breasted grosbeak. Her bucket list bird is the painted bunting.