Western Tanager, Yard Number 174
by Ro Wauer
The fall migration is well underway, with thousands of birds en route to their wintering grounds to the south. Only a few of those that pass our way may remain in South Texas, while many, many more continue across the border to Mexico, Central America, or even into northern South America. These neotropical migrants will then overwinter in suitable habitats in tropical forest areas, but will eventually return to the United States in spring. The majority of those that pass through our area of South Texas going south will pass this way again in spring. A few others may never come this way again, as those individuals that apparently got off track from their normal southbound route are more likely to follow a more appropriate route.
Finding one of the "out-of-the-way" migrants is always exciting, and when I discovered a western tanager in my yard on October 4, it represented a new bird for my yard list. Now that is not to say that western tanagers have never before been recorded in our area, but I had never before found one in my yard. According to Mark Elwonger's "Finding Birds on the Central Texas Coast," there are scattered records from mid-August to mid-May. And Bill Farnsworth's list of birds found on Victoria Christmas Bird Counts includes one at least every three or four years.
The western tanager is true neotropical species, probably more at home in the tropics than it is during its brief stay in North America. Like so many of the neotropical songbirds, its diet changes from being dominated by insects on its breeding grounds to fruit in the tropics. Although the tanager family is a huge one, with some 224 species in the New World, only four species - western, scarlet, summer, and hepatic tanagers - occur in the temperate zone of North America. Only one of the four, the summer tanager, nests in our area of Texas, utilizing broadleaf woodlands. The western tanager is a western bird that nests in coniferous forest areas in the mountains from the Davis and Guadalupe mountains in West Texas northward to northern Canada. The hepatic tanager breeds in pinyon-juniper woodlands of Southwestern mountain ranges, including the Chisos, Davis, and Guadalupe mountains of West Texas. The scarlet tanager nests in broadleaf woodlands in the eastern portion of North America and only passes through South Texas in migration.
All of the tanagers are some of our most colorful birds, although there is considerable sexual dimorphism. That is, male plumage is different than that of the female. Male tanagers possess considerable red markings; the scarlet tanager may be the best known with the male's scarlet body and coal black wings. Female tanagers are more subtly marked with yellow or greenish bodies and only slightly darker wings. Our local breeder, the summer tanager, is dull red with blackish streaks on the wings and a yellowish bill. The hepatic tanager is liver-red color with gray cheeks and a black bill. The male western tanager, like the one found in my yard, has only a red head. Its body is yellow and black. The back and wings are black while the underside, rump, and collar are bright yellow. It truly is a gorgeous bird!
Another special quality of the tanagers is the male's marvelous singing ability, noted for length and persistence. The females do not sing. But male tanagers, unlike many of the neotropical songbirds, continue to sing throughout the breeding season. And they also give rather distinct call notes throughout the breeding season and even during the winter. For instance, the summer tanager sings a song much like that of the American robin, and the call notes are a dry rattled "pit-a-tuck" or "pit-a-chuck." That call helps one locate one of these wintertime loners.