Scarlet Tanager Care Sheet

Scientific Facts

Common NameScarlet Tanager
Scientific NamePiranga olivacea
Life SpanUp to 10 years
Size6.3 to 6.7 inches
HabitatWoodlands and mature forests
Country of OriginPanama and Bolivia

Physical Description

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The scarlet tanagers are stunning birds that look like they belong to the rainforest. These birds are somewhat common in the eastern part of the forests throughout the summer and spring seasons. 

They are one of the most brightly colored birds you can find in North America. The scarlet tanagers are medium-sized songbirds. They measure 6.3 to 6.7 inches or 16 to 17 centimeters long. Their wingspans measure 9.8 to 11.4 inches. 

The most distinctive feature of the male scarlet tanagers is their reddish color. Breeding male birds have black wings and tail, but the other parts of their bodies are bright red. They have a white bill, gray legs, and dark eyes. 

While they have been called scarlets, these birds are not always in the shade of red. The female scarlet tanagers have black tails and wings. However, their bodies are not red but bright olive-green instead. During molts in fall and spring, the non-breeding males will have a combination of olive green and red feathers. 

Females, however, represent themselves in the shade of yellow to olive green. Their brightest parts of their bodies are rump, throat, and undertail. Their tails are edged green, but their wings are brownish olive. 

Young scarlet tanagers look like the adult female birds. They sing, and that song corresponds to a sequence of burry and short syllables that resemble the song of the robin with a painful throat. They make a springy “chik-burr” sound.

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The scarlet tanagers are neotropical migrants. They spend the breeding season in eastern North America in mixed deciduous-coniferous and deciduous forests and mature forests. These birds do exist in suburban regions with huge trees. 

Also, the scarlet tanagers spend their time in montane lush green forests in the western and northern South America, starting from Bolivia to Panama. The male birds typically go and arrive from their temporary habitats for winter in advance before the females claim the territory on tall trees.

The scarlet tanagers are forest interior birds that live in large woodlands and mixed forests, particularly the mature forests. However, they can also be seen in the pine stands, wooded ravines, upland deciduous forests, and little forest patches. 

These birds are typically found in the hickory and oak forests but are found in various mixed forests, such as the wide-ranging conifer forests in all elevations. The scarlet tanagers are somewhat common in the forests in Pennsylvania, including the game lands, state forests, and state parks. 

These birds prefer mature forests that have tall trees, high canopy shelter, a healthy mid-story of saplings, shrubs, and small trees. They are one of the most abundant bird species in Pennsylvania, but they often go undetected unless they’re heard. 

The male scarlet tanagers are among the most brightly colored birds found in Pennsylvania. However, people typically overlook them as they prefer to live in treetops or forest canopy. Most of the forested significant bird spots of Pennsylvania support big populations of the scarlet tanagers. 

Biology and Natural History

In summer and spring, the calls and songs of scarlet tanagers show where they are in the trees. Their whistled songs are a combination of burry and robin-like phrases and the famous “chick-burr” call. These birds raise and dip their tails when they make the “chick-burr” call. Male and female scarlet tanagers call back and forth by making a “sweee” call. 

In late April to early May, by the time the males claim or even reclaim their previous breeding territory, the males look for a good perch and sing almost consistently from the high point to claim or protect the territory. 

At times, the female birds answer the song of males with the short and shorter form of the same song. The males will then counter-sing backward and forward between the nearby territories, particularly in the early morning. 

The scarlet tanagers make a nest at different heights. On average, the nest is usually between 20 and 40 feet above the ground. She builds a flimsy but quite bulky nest within the forked twigs of the horizontal or almost horizontal limb. 

Their nest has been made of grass, twigs, weeds, and dark strips with finer plant materials that the birds use for lining. Besides, this nest is typically shielded by the dangling leaf cluster or concealed in the vine. 

The female tanagers do the incubation and lay 2 to 5 eggs while the males forage and bring themselves foods. Adults will feed the young. Pairs will have one brood every year. The scarlet tanagers eat insects and spiders. They’ll hawk for the flying insects though they often snatch and collect prey while foraging leaves and branches. At times, they hover to carefully examine the leaves or reach the insects. 

The scarlet tanagers prey on various insects like beetles, including their larvae, wasps, bees, caterpillars, moths, snails, dragonflies, worms, and millipedes. They will also take fruits and buds or even grab the earthworms on the ground. 

They forage mostly in the canopy and mid-story amongst the forest’s heavy foliage. In late summer or fall, these birds forage on berries and wild fruits. 

In mid or late summer, after the nesting period, the adult and young scarlet tanagers usually walk beyond the breeding territories in September to early October when these birds leave northeast North America and Pennsylvania. They will travel south from South America and Panama. 

Some tanagers travel more than 4,000 miles from the breeding grounds up to the wintering grounds. The scarlet tanagers are long-distant migratory birds as they spend the entire winter season with other types of tanagers and other North American songbirds within the remote woodlands of Ecuador, Columbia, Bolivia, and Peru. On their wintering grounds, their habitats in the forests will hold a lot of thick scrubs and brushes than the ones available in their breeding habitats in North America. 

Range, Distribution, and Migration

The scarlet tanagers are commonly found across the United States, especially in states like Ontario, Michigan, New Jersey, and Wisconsin. They spend the winter seasons in northwestern South America. Their range in the summer expands all over the east and mid-west portion of the United States up to the south of Canada. 

Their migratory route will pass over Central America for April and October. These birds like to spend the winter in the evergreen mountainous woodlands. They are among those American songbirds that have changed to leave and migrate, going to other areas where they can breed. 

They come to their breeding grounds in big numbers in May and will start moving to the south in mid-summer. In October, these birds will fly southwards. The exact winter range of these birds is unclear. Their primary habitat is mid-elevation forests within the northwest Andes. However, there are some debates about whether these birds are prevalent in Amazon lowlands. 

Longevity or Lifespan

The average lifespan of the scarlet tanagers is 10 years. These birds living in the wild tend to have a shorter life span. In captivity, they can live longer for as long as they receive proper care and nutrition. 


The scarlet tanagers are good at flying as they can make fast and direct flights. They can even migrate at a long distance in spring and fall. The males arrive in the breeding areas before the females and stake out the territories in their tall trees of choice. This will serve as a warning for other males. 

The female birds are attracted to those males that sing. Their courtship display tends to be quite simple. It begins with males hopping on the low perches in the woods beside the ground. As they hop, these birds will spread widely their wings and show their scarlet backs.

If they succeed in courting the females, the males will mate right away with the females. Then, they will take care of their mates. Feed them every day and protect them from danger throughout the nesting period. 

These birds will feed on insects in treetops, plants, and on the soil. They catch those insects by garnering, holding, and hovering them. The scarlet tanagers are great in catching flying insects. They have excellent skills in hunting and killing prey. 

If they feel threatened, these birds will mob the predators. They may dump and jump all over them while making sounds. However, they respond to merlins and American crows by being silent and watchful, as if they are trying to be discreet. 

In the wintering grounds of South America, the scarlet tanagers join other birds and forage altogether with the local tropical tanagers.


The male scarlet tanagers might be in the brilliant shade of red for the whole breeding season. However, it is more likely you will hear them singing instead of seeing them perching. That is because they love to perch higher on top of the trees. Thus, not all animals will see them, so they will sing to let everyone know they are there. 

The scarlet tanagers are the best in migration above all other tanagers. They can easily travel and reach several miles away every year. 

During courtship, the behaviors and habits of male scarlet tanagers will change. Instead of singing, which they do when claiming their territories, they slip to a lower branch of the tree, spread their wings, and show their colorful feathers to the females that are perching higher at their backs. When their mating habits were completed, the nesting period will begin. 

Throughout the nesting and incubation time, the male birds will stay far from the nests. Their bright colors are making these birds more enticing for the predators. As they are away, the female birds will be busy since it is their job to make the nests and incubate the eggs.

The nests will be shallow cups of branches, stems, and grass. These nests are often 5 to 75 feet from the ground at the tip of horizontal limbs. When the nests are ready, the females will continue by laying 3 to 5 eggs. The incubation period will last for around 14 days. The hatchlings will leave their nests in the next 9 to 11 days of their lives. 

As the scarlet tanagers target the insects on the ground and plants, the gardeners treat them as friends. These birds can eat as much as 600 caterpillars in the tents in just 15 minutes. 


The scarlet tanagers are great flyers because they have fast reflexes that are helping them catch and kill flying insects of any kind. 

Song and Calls

Aside from the soft, croaky “chip-burr” sound, the scarlet tanagers can make some other interesting sounds or calls. In summer, they make the Robin-like song that goes “querit queer query querit queer,” which you will likely hear in deciduous woodlands. 

Then, the females will answer the calls of the male birds by singing the same song but with a shorter pattern. The voices of female scarlet tanagers, however, are less coarse and softer. These birds are making these sounds during their territorial fights, and when they feel they are in danger. They will make these calling sounds while drooping their tails and snapping their tails. 

At dawn, the male scarlet tanagers will sing continuously, as they blend the songs with calls. The female birds will sing when they gather food and the necessary materials in building their nests. 

Spring is a nice time to see the Bernheim’s colorful birds flying and perching in groups, especially the scarlet tanagers. The red male scarlet tanagers are so hard to spot as they spend their time mostly in perching at the highest branches of the trees while they sing. Females are more difficult to see because of the pale colors that let them blend well into the environment. Also, they are so hard to find because they spend their time usually in the nests.

The scarlet tanagers are so delicate to habitat destruction. They settle for big forest blocks such as the Bernheim. They are migratory birds, so they don’t stay in just place throughout the year. 

The females sing as well. Compared to the common belief, studies showed that in around 70 percent of the bird species, the males and females are singing. Karam Odom revealed this in the study she conducted regarding the orioles that exist in Puerto Rico and Maryland. 

In North America, the male scarlet tanagers look brighter and are more likely to sing, but both male and female birds sing in the tropics. The reason behind it can be the fact that most birds found in North America exist only for a limited time when it’s their time to mate. Then, they will migrate to the southern portion in winter. They don’t stay away from the breeding grounds in the tropics. 

For the entire breeding period, the species in the north will be in a hurry. These birds need to secure and protect their territory, look for a perfect mate, and raise the hatchlings. Therefore, the male scarlet tanagers attract female birds with their rich colorings and catchy songs.

However, the competition between those birds living in the tropics is on food and not mates. Both male and female birds compete for the available resources. All the birds are brilliantly colored and will sing to display their prowess to their competitors. 


The scarlet tanagers have some adaptive characteristics. The beaks of these birds have a unique tooth-like formation somewhere on their upper jawbones. With these beaks, they can easily eat ariled seeds and fruits. 


Adult birds serve as prey to bigger birds such as the eastern screech owls, short-eared owls, long-eared owls, and merlins. Their eggs and hatchlings are not an exemption. Other animals like grackles, blue jays, squirrels, American crows, snakes, and chipmunks feast on their eggs or hatchlings. 

The scarlet tanagers mob the predators. They tend to dump and leap around their predators while they call at them. But these birds respond to merlins and American crows by being noiseless and observant, apparently in its attempt to become inconspicuous. 


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The diets of scarlet tanagers include insects with tender buds and fruits. They eat a wide variety of invertebrates like sawflies, ants, butterflies, moths, flies, beetles, leafhoppers, cicadas, treehoppers, spittlebugs, plant lice, termites, scale insects, locusts, grasshoppers, dragonflies, snails, dobsonflies, spiders, and earthworms.

As they look for tidbits, these birds will walk along the higher branches within the canopy or alongside the ground. They may also walk vertically on the twigs of trees so that they can probe the woof. The birds hover or perch with quick wingbeats to catch the insects from the flowers, bark, and leaves. They also catch flying insects such as wasps, bees, and hornets in the air. 

They’ll shallow the little larva completely, but they may also kill bigger prey by pressing the animal into the branch. In the winter, they will feed together with other birds like tropical tanagers, flycatchers, woodcreepers, and barbets.


The scarlet tanagers mate with one partner in every breeding season. The males will be silent while courting the females as they fly to those exposed twigs under the females. Then, they will extend their necks and wings, showing their shiny feathers on the back. 

The female scarlet tanagers are attracted to the scarlet colors of the males, including their movements and postures. 

Mating System

The breeding period happens from May until August. The females will make shallow and saucer-shaped nesting spots, which may take several days to a week. They use branches, coarse grass, rootlets, or weed stems. Once the needed materials are ready, they will line these materials by using pine needles and fine grasses.

They will place the nests in long distances from the ground. The nests will carry 4 to 5 eggs that will need incubation. The females will incubate the eggs, but both parents will bring food and feed the hatchlings. The young scarlet tanagers will eventually leave the nests 9 to 15 days after the eggs hatched. 


The female scarlet tanagers will choose the best nesting site. Typically, they prefer those shaded spots in the group of leaves at the juncture of the smaller twigs of trees. The nests often stay too far from the ground at around 50 feet from the soil on the horizontal branch apart from the tree’s trunk.

The nesting site normally has an unobstructed scene of the ground or open, uncluttered flyways from neighboring trees. The scarlet tanagers prefer to nest in the fully-grown deciduous trees like beech, maple, and oak, but these birds may nest as well in the eastern hemlock. 

The females gather the required nesting materials from the woodland floor and create a fragile nest that will take days to complete. Building the right nesting spot for their future hatchlings is not a simple task. So, they spend several days to make sure the nest will be sturdy and safe for the eggs.

They drop materials on the nesting spot, hop in, and mold the materials into shape. They press their bodies against the base and sides of the nest and will get out and weave in the loose ends. The nest will be a loosely woven combination of grasses, twigs, bark strips, plant stalks, pine needles, and rootlets. Also, it will have a shallow, asymmetrical internal spacing lined with fine rootlets, grass, fine plant fibers, pine needles, vine tendrils. 

Every clutch will contain 3 to 5 eggs. Each egg will measure 0.8 to 1.1 inches or 2 to 2.7 centimeters long and 0.6 to 0.7 inches or 1.5 to 1.8 centimeters wide. The incubation period usually takes more than 2 weeks. This period lasts for up to 2 weeks in most cases. The nesting period will last from 9 to 15 days. 

The eggs of scarlet tanagers are light blue or greenish-blue spotted with purplish red, lilac, and chestnut. The hatchlings look helpless. Their eyes are still closed, and their skin is orange. Also, they have tiny tufts of gray-white down on their heads and backs. 


The scarlet tanagers are prone to predation. They protect themselves against certain animals like chipmunks, snakes, and squirrels by mobbing these animals as they come closer to these birds. They will also jump and swoop while calling these animals. 

However, the number one threat to scarlet tanagers in the habitat fragmentation in most parts of their range. This problem is the usual result of road construction and land clearing and development for the construction of buildings, houses, and other infrastructures. 

Population Trend

The populations of scarlet tanagers dropped at 1% every year based on the report of Breeding Bird Surveys. Pennsylvania is one of the most affected areas regarding this issue. The state is so crucial for the future of these colorful birds. 

Around 60% of the lands in Pennsylvania are surrounded by forests. Therefore, it’s no longer surprising to know that Pennsylvania seems to have the planet’s nesting population of these birds, which is up to 17%. This is a higher proportion compared to other species. Thus, this American state comes with a strict stewardship liability for the scarlet tanagers’ future. 

It’s important to make sure that the commonwealth supervises and monitors the forests to keep healthy and stable populations of these beautiful songbirds. This way, future generations will also get the chance to see these animals. 

Luckily, the population trend of these birds appears to be equally stable. Besides, these birds showed some sort of resiliency. Established bird assessment programs like eBird and Breeding Bird Survey assess and track the numbers of scarlet tanagers very well. The participation of the birding society in Pennsylvania regarding this matter and other related projects must continue expanding while the threats to woodlands are getting more and more intense. 

Scarlet Tanagers as Pets

Since they are insectivorous birds, the scarlet tanagers are not that popular and common as pets. On the other hand, when one wants to keep these birds as pets, then proper care and attention must be offered, especially when it comes to their habitat requisites. 

The nest of scarlet tanagers should be located at the coniferous, deciduous trees that should be 6 to 9 meters away from the ground. Also, the nesting site of these birds must be on the horizontal branches of the tree. Ideally, the nest could be made at the intersection of at least 2 small branches together with the key horizontal branch. Likewise, the nest has to be with the leaves that will give shade for the eggs. The entire nesting spot must be free from obstructions, allowing the parents and even their hatchlings to fly safely and easily. 


As there are no birdhouses made for the scarlet tanagers, there will be some things that you will need to consider and follow in making a perfect nest for your pet.

First, you have to make sure the nest will be in the ideal placement. Put in a branch of a tree that is 6 to 9 meters apart from the ground. This will not be a problem for the parents because they can fly high with ease. 

Second, you need to mount the nest to a horizontal branch of the tree. The most suitable site for making a nest for your scarlet tanagers will be at the intersection between two smaller branches and the main horizontal twig. 

Keep in mind that the nest of these birds come with 4 common characteristics. This nest is placed at the leaf cluster or somewhere with many leaves that will shade and protect the nest. Also, the nest should be with ideal conditions for both the safety of the eggs and easy, convenient access for the parents. 

Where to Get One?

The scarlet tanagers can be found and purchased at the pet stores online and offline. Also, you can try getting a pair from any professional breeders, you know. No matter where you choose to get the birds, always don’t forget to check their health and current status. Be sure your birds are healthy, happy, and active. Check their feathers, eyes, feet, and the rest of their bodies for any abnormalities or signs of disease. 

How to Care for Scarlet Tanagers?

The scarlet tanagers are fun and good pets to keep. If it is your first time to take care of birds, then these species will not be a good choice for you. These birds are much more ideal for intermediate and experienced birdkeepers out there. The scarlet tanagers will require some things about their housing. You have to provide them with perches, toys, and a bigger and spacious aviary. 

Fun Facts About Scarlet Tanagers

  • On the grounds of South America throughout the winter season, these birds will come together with other species of birds to flock and feed themselves. They fly with antbirds, flycatchers, tropical tanagers, and woodcreepers.
  • The females sing a song that is similar to the songs that the males will often sing. However, they sing this song in a shorter, softer, and less coarse version. The females will answer the song of the males while they gather the nesting materials. 
  • The reaction of scarlet tanagers to habitat fragmentation differs from one place to another. The results of the Project Tanager conducted by Cornell Lab indicates that these birds can be seen in the tiny forest patches in the center of their range. However, the forest patches of the same size in the Midwest do not have scarlet tanagers.
  • The scarlet tanagers usually play host to the eggs of brown-headed cowbird in areas where their forest habitat suffered from fragmentation. When these birds see a female brown-headed cowbird is coming closer, they will try to drive that bird away with aggression. If the parents do not notice the presence of this bird, then the female cowbird will remove the eggs of the tanager and replace them with her eggs. The scarlet tanagers will not notice the situation before and even after the eggs hatch. They end up raising the hatchling of the cowbird together with the young tanagers. 
  • The eldest scarlet tanager was a male and had lived for up to 11 years and 11 months. U In 1990, this bird was banded when it was in Pennsylvania and found in 2001 in Texas. 


What type of habitat do the scarlet tanagers need?

In the wild, the scarlet tanagers live mainly in old deciduous woodlands and mixed deciduous woodlands with pine and hemlock. These birds may also live in young deciduous woodlands and occasionally in the heavily wooded residential places. 

Where do the scarlet tanagers come from?

The scarlet tanagers are more common in North America. They exist in great numbers in Panama and Bolivia.

How do scarlet tanagers reproduce?

These birds search for one mating partner in each breeding season that happens yearly. The males will court the females in silence as they fly, going to exposed tree branches where they expand their wings and show their colorful feathers to entice the females. 

Do scarlet tanagers look for more mating partners during the breeding season?

Unlike other animals, the scarlet tanagers prefer to have one mating partner. Males will mate with just one female every year. 

What do scarlet tanagers eat, and how do they protect themselves from predators?

Adult scarlet tanagers often become victims of some birds like the eastern screech owl, short-eared owl, merlin, and long-eared owl while the grackles, blue jays, squirrels, snakes, chipmunks, and American crows attack the eggs and their hatchlings. The scarlet tanagers try to protect themselves from these animals by hiding from them. 

Do the scarlet tanagers cause problems?

So far, the scarlet tanagers seem not to cause problems to people. There were no reported bad effects of these birds to humans. 

How do scarlet tanagers interact with people?

The scarlet tanagers eat insects that might be pestering the plants and flowers. Therefore, some people consider these animals and try to keep them as pets. 

Do scarlet tanagers bring good to humans?

Scarlet tanagers are somewhat helpful to people. That is because they eat a variety of insects, which are mostly considered as pests. 

Are scarlet tanagers enlisted as endangered species?

The scarlet tanagers are widespread and widely available. Hence, they are not enlisted as endangered species. 

Are scarlet tanagers aggressive?

The scarlet tanagers, especially the males, are more likely to become aggressive during the breeding season. Their aggressiveness tends to show up when they are searching or reclaiming a territory.

How long do scarlet tanagers grow?

The scarlet tanagers are not big birds. In most cases, these birds are just 6.3 to 6.7 inches long. 

Are scarlet tanagers loud and noisy?

Yes, they may be noisy, considering that they are songbirds. They are known for their songs and calls that people often hear when exploring the areas where these birds are common.

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