Yellow Tanager: Birding ID Challenge

Most tanagers are red. But you might be surprised to see a yellow tanager. Find out how to figure out which yellow tanager you are seeing.

Which Yellow Tanager Are You Seeing?

250491396 1 Carole Anderson Bnb Bypc2020Courtesy Carole Anderson
A yellow female scarlet tanager

Spotting a tanager is always a treat for birders. Male scarlet tanagers and summer tanagers are bright red birds, but you might not realize that the females of these species are actually yellow. The Western tanager is also a primarily yellow and black bird with red on its head. Learn how to tell which yellow tanager you are seeing in the backyard.

Discover 8 surprising facts about tanagers.

Female Summer Tanager

yellow tanager, A female summer tanager sits on a decaying log.Courtesy William Palmer
A female summer tanager sits on a decaying log.

One of the easiest ways to determine which yellow tanager you are seeing is by looking at the bird’s range map. Summer tanagers are most commonly found in the southern states when the weather warms up. Also, pay attention to the lack of field marks. Female summer tanagers are a solid color yellow with no black or red markings on the wings, head or tail. Look for a large bill to distinguish it from other small yellow birds. You may be able to attract tanagers with the grape jelly you put out for orioles.

Yellow warbler vs goldfinch: Here’s how to tell the difference.

Female Scarlet Tanager

Female Scarlet Tanager; East Tawas; Mi; During Spring Migration; May 21; 2016.Courtesy Pamela Carter
Female scarlet tanager in Michigan during spring migration

To identify a female scarlet tanager, look for a bird that looks just like its male counterpart, with black wings, but in a muted yellowish green color instead of red. Scarlet tanagers breed farther north than summer tanagers; look for them farther south during spring migration. Do scarlet tanagers eat oranges?

Western Tanager

Bnbbyc17 Barbara HauerCourtesy Barbara Hauer
Look for the western tanager’s red head, black wings and tail

As their name indicates, colorful Western tanagers are typically only found in the western half of the United States during spring migration and summer. They have black wings and tails like scarlet tanagers, but with bright yellow bodies and red heads in the breeding season. Also look for a distinctive yellow shoulder patch and white wingbars.

FemalewesterntanagerCourtesy Rachel Bauer
Female Western tanager

Female western tanagers look more muted, pale yellow and gray, without the reddish head coloring. In the southwest, also look for yellow female flame-colored and hepatic tanagers.

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Lori Vanover
Lori Vanover is the senior digital editor for Birds & Blooms. She has a bachelor's degree in agricultural and environmental communications from the University of Illinois. Lori enjoys growing vegetables and flowers for pollinators in her backyard gardens. She also is an avid bird-watcher.