You can get a real neck ache watching a Western Tanager foraging. It spends all of its time up in the trees checking out the leaves for food. The one thing you can’t help but notice, though, is the male’s brilliant coloring. Research has shown that the red pigment on his head comes from a chemical found in the insects the Tanager eats!
Western Tanagers are 6-7″ long. They are short tailed with a pale pinkish bill and long pointed wings. Their legs and feet are gray. The male Western Tanager has a reddish head, a yellow body, black back, black wings, and a notched black tail. His head becomes more yellowish during the winter and is finely streaked. He has two distinct wing bars; the upper wing bar is yellow and the lower wing bar is white. The female is a dull yellow below with an olive-gray back. Her head is yellow and her wing bars are paler and thinner. Immature birds are like the female.
Range and Habitat
These Tanagers are found in deciduous and coniferous forests in most of western North America and on down into western Texas. They sometimes over-winter in southern California, but are usually found wintering in South America. Western Tanagers migrate at night and at high altitudes.
Western Tanagers are not easy to see because they forage in the upper branches of trees. They eat insects, small fruit, berries, invertebrates and spiders. They will fly out to catch insects on the wing and perch high in the tree canopy. Their song is similar to a Robin’s song, but has a hoarse quality to it. The song has repeated burry phases with a pause after each phrase. In flight, the Western Tanager is swift and direct.
Breeding and Nesting
Western Tanagers are monogamous; pairs form during migration or on their wintering grounds. The female builds her nest on a horizontal branch of a pine or an oak tree. She positions it well out from the trunk and about 65 feet up. The nest is saucer shaped and is made up of twigs and grass, and is lined with hair or roots. The female lays 3-5 eggs and incubates them for around 13 days. After the young hatch, both parents will feed and care for the young. The young leave the nest at around 11 days but stay around close for another two weeks.