Western Tanager

Bird of the Month: Western Tanager

By Hugh Jennings

PC: Mick Thompson (Western Tanager)

PC: Mick Thompson (Western Tanager)

Scientific Name: Piranga ludoviciana

Length 7.25 in

Wingspan 11.5 in

Weight 0.98 oz

AOU Band code WETA

The Western Tanager (WETA) is about 7.25” long with a wingspan of 11.5” and a weight of 0.98 oz. (28g). The genus name Piranga (pie-RANG-gah) apparently is a South American name for “bird”. The species name ludoviciana (lewd-oh-vick-ih-ANE-ah) refers to Louisiana Territory. It was named Louisiana tanager by naturalist Alexander Wilson for the bird discovered by Lewis and Clark in western part of the then broad Louisiana Territory.

In the summer the male has a red face, yellow belly and black back, wings and tail. It has two wing bars, the upper broad and yellow with the lower thin and whitish. The red head becomes yellowish and finely streaked in the winter. The female has two morphs: 1) greenish yellow with gray back and 2) mostly gray with yellow only on head and undertail coverts. Both have grayish wings with two light wing bars. The female plumage is the same in the winter. A thicker bill and chunkier shape helps distinguish female tanagers from female orioles.

Preferred habitats of the WETA are coniferous or mixed forests in the summer. It occurs up into northwestern Canada and the western United States west of the Rocky Mts. This bird breeds mostly in the mountains, while during migration they may show up in any habitat. The WETA winters in the tropics mostly in pine-oak woods or forest edges. It may winter in California in eucalyptus groves.  In Washington it is a common resident statewide in conifer forests, except on the coast. They are most common in the eastern part of the state and Douglas fir forests are favored breeding habitat.

They feed mainly on insects, including wasps, bees, ants, beetles, grasshoppers. They also feed on berries and may come to feeders to orange halves. It forages mostly in the tops of trees and usually feeds deliberately, peering about slowly for insects in foliage, and will fly out to catch insects in midair.
The song is a series of 2-3 syllable slow phrases similar to a robin. The call is a slurred “pit-er-ic”.

The nest site is usually in a coniferous tree, but sometimes in aspen, oak or other deciduous tree. The nest is usually placed at a fork in a horizontal branch well away from the trunk and 15-65 feet above the ground. The female builds the nest, a shallow cup made of twigs and grass lined with animal hair and fine rootlets. There may be 3-5 pale blue eggs with dark marks. The incubation period by the female is about 13 days and the young fledge after another13-15 days. Both parents bring food to the nestlings.
The lengthy migration lasts until late spring and begins early in the fall.