The Wood Folk Diaries: Volume 2, Chapter 1: Meet Scarlet Tanager, Guardian of the Oaks

Dear Wood Folk,

I’m excited to start Volume 2 of the Wood Folk Diaries. We’re going to the birds! Our first guest is perhaps my favorite, red being my favorite color: meet scarlet tanager (piranga olivacea). The ornithologist Edward H. Forbush called Scarlet Tanagers “the appointed guardian of the oaks“. There’s one place to look for them!

Look up high come mid-May and onward here, and you might see a bright red spot:

Scarlet tanagers are a medium sized American songbird in the cardinal/grosbeak/bunting family.

During breeding season, the males are bright red with black wings. The females are yellow, a muted blackish cast to their olive wings. Immature males look like the females, but with tell tale stark black wing feathers growing in. After breeding season the males turn yellow as well. Then, until next Spring, wing blackness and size are the main hints to sex them. I usually see these tanagers in pairs, even after breeding.

On the male below you can see orange coming out on his head. This happened later than I’d expected. I saw one much further along than this at the end of July. But for this guy the change started around the end of August:

When changing, males remind me of their close relation, painted bunting, so beautiful:

Scarlet tanager transitioning to autumn coloring.
Scarlet tanager transitioning to autumn coloring.

You can hear them and see more pictures at my favorite birder site, All About Birds, ran by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Scarlet Tanager Plant Allies

Scarlet tanagers make their home in mature deciduous woods with a brown eye out for oaks, but also for maple, beech and more. Sometimes you’ll find them in mixed or even pine or hemlock woods. The female will make their nest out on horizontal branch up high. All About Birds perfectly describes the nest as, “a loosely woven saucer of twigs, grasses, plant stalks, bark strips, rootlets, and pine needles. It has a shallow and asymmetrical interior space, lined with grass, fine rootlets, fine plant fibers, vine tendrils, and pine needles.”

It’s so different here from their winter home in the Andean foothills! By the time autumn hits Haliburton they should be on their way toward the rainforest!

While known for eating insects, catching many mid air and returning to the same perch to feast (a hunting style called “sallying”), they also enjoy fruits. Wild plants like black cherry, a popular tree among birds:

They eat all sorts of local berry plants: blackberries, black cherry, chokecherries, elderberries, huckleberries, juneberries, raspberries, serviceberries, strawberries, and wild grapes. Did I forget any local berries? No doubt! All berries are probably game. Not kidding. They’ve even been seen eating poison ivy and sumac berries!

How to Attract Scarlet Tanager

If you feed birds, like orioles they prefer oranges and grape jelly. However, in hot weather jellies can liquify into a sticky mess that can coat feathers and cause problems for birdkind. You may want to skip the Concord jelly trend all-together. Whole fruit is much better for them anyway..

You could garnish a fruit plate with raisins, soaked in water to plump them up first. You’re most likely to attract visitors to your fruit bowl in the springtime. Perhaps adding mealworms and suet to the menu will attract them around southern migration time!

If you are near a mature wood and keep your yard insect friendly (and please do!), your chances will increase. They visit birdbaths too. Scarlet tanagers have a stable population as of 2020, so your chances are high around Haliburton and throughout their breeding range!

In coming months Wood Folk Diary will be about wild turkeys around Thanksgiving, and in November we’ll meet indigo bunting (they’ll be on a Caribbean vacation at the time) and we’ll learn about making windows collision proof. Let’s connect so you won’t miss it!

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