Summer Tanager Numbers are on the Increase
by Ro Wauer
For the third year, summer tanagers are singing about my neighborhood at Mission Oaks, and on a recent breeding bird census between Schroeder and Mission Valley, I recorded three singing summer tanagers for the first time. The increased numbers of this charismatic species is most welcome, although why it has begun to frequent oak woodland areas of Victoria, DeWitt and Goliad counties are unknown. Although it’s regular Texas breeding range includes most of the southern half of Texas, it usually prefers broadleaf woodlands like those found along the river floodplains instead of oak woodlands.
Male summer tanagers possess bright red plumage, except for the red-brown wings, while females are yellowish with a yellow-green back. Both sexes possess a rather large pale bill. And although they are not often easily seen, because of their habit of staying in the upper foliage of broadleaf trees, their songs and calls usually give them away. Summer tanager songs resemble that of the American robin, with a series of sweet, clear phases, but faster and more deliberate. And their call is a dry spit-a-chuck, pit-a-tuck, or pit-tuck. Sometimes they will give an extended series of calls.
The summer tanager male that is currently utilizing my yard may be the same individual that was present there during the previous two summers. My current yardbird is an adult male in full breeding plumage. The earlier individual had not yet developed full adult plumage, but was mottled with red and yellowish plumage. And I had the impression that it was a juvenile bird that had not yet found a mate, but working hard to attract a lady tanager. It sang loudly during most of May and June, but seemed to loose interest by mid-summer. And it spent considerable time at my birdbath, sitting in the water splashing itself with water. It stayed until September, and then disappeared, only to return the following April; easily recognized due to its unchanged plumage pattern.
Three other tanager species do occur regularly in Texas. The one that probably is best known is the scarlet tanager, a bird of the eastern forests, and is only an occasional migrant through South Texas. The western tanager is a bird of the western forests that is only rarely found in our area. The hepatic tanager is a bird of the Southwestern woodlands, fairly common in the Davis and Guadalupe mountains of West Texas. All are easy identified. The scarlet tanager male is also bright red, but it has coal black wings and a yellow bill; females are greenish-yellow with darker wings. The male western tanager is yellow and black with a red face and cap. The hepatic tanager male is a liver-red color with dark streaks on the wings and a black bill; females are yellowish with a black bill.
Tanagers primarily are tropical species that occur in the tropics, usually south of the United States. There are 28 tanager species in Mexico, and 216 species in South America. I suppose that we are fortunate to find a tiny percentage of that number in Texas. Our birds are neotropical species that come north to court and raise a family, but the majority returns to their tropical habitats soon afterwards where they spent most of their life.