For the Birds Radio Program: Scarlet Tanagers

Original Air Date: June 9, 2003 Rerun Dates: June 7, 2004; May 21, 2004

Laura has had more than the usual number of encounters with Scarlet Tanagers this spring, and has heard from lots of people about them, too. 4:35

Audio missing


A couple of weeks ago, right after I saw a Scarlet Tanager in my backyard, I got an e-mail from Tim Larson, a friend of mine who had just seen a Scarlet Tanager, which inspired him to look up the bird in Kenn Kaufman’s Lives of North American Birds. He noticed that tanagers eat bees and wasps, and that Summer Tanagers have even been known to break into wasps’ nests and become pests around bee hives. He asked, “Do they have no sense of pain in their mouths? Or is getting stung just a risk they’re willing to take for a meal?”

Naturally I had to look it up, and so I pulled out my Birds of North America booklets published by the American Ornithologists’ Union and The Academy of Natural Sciences. The Scarlet Tanager entry said that they do indeed catch bees, wasps and hornets, by hawking them in mid-air, and that they beat them against a branch or other hard surface until they’re dead. But the author, Thomas Mowbray, noted that there is no published documentation that they remove the stingers.

I looked up the Summer Tanager entry. This is a more southerly tanager, but there are several Minnesota records, including a few in Duluth. Summer Tanagers capture a lot of bees and wasps, again by hawking for them in mid-air, and, like Scarlet Tanagers, they beat them against a branch to kill them before eating them. But Summer Tanagers do remove the stinger, by wiping the prey on a branch until it falls off. To raid the hives, they first capture and kill adults—not always eating them—and in general harass them until the adults abandon the hive, leaving the succulent larvae unprotected.

Anyway, a day after I received this e-mail, when I was leading a warbler walk on Park Point, Tim Larson spotted a female Scarlet Tanager on a boardwalk near the beach. She flew up to a tree, where she stuck around for longer than we did, giving everyone satisfying looks. Females are a dullish green with dark wings, but there is something about their large, dark eyes that gives even the plainest ones a pleasant, innocent appearance.

And this being my Scarlet Tanager spring, I also received an e-mail from a Minneapolis Star Tribune reader who lives near Wild River State Park. Harvey Hultquist wrote on May 14:

We have scarlet tanagers every summer, but this morning we had the thrill of a bird watcher’s life when two males came into our yard and both went to our feeders, dozens of times. In your column you asked readers to let you know about any special ways to attract this beautiful species so we will tell you ours. At all of our feeders, both locations, we feed only shelled out sunflower kernels.

If we had been feeding black oilies, as so many organizations recommend, we would never have had birds such as this adapt to seed eating. This morning, in addition to scarlet tanagers, we had several of each of the following: Baltimore Orioles, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Indigo Buntings, and then all the other more common visitors at our feeders.

I’ve had orioles come to oranges, sugar water, and grape jelly, and Indigo Buntings to black sunflower seeds. But I’ve never had a Scarlet Tanager at my feeders—this is the first year I’ve even seen one in my yard. But I’m thinking about long term possibilities. So I’m going to plant a nice oak tree and a yellow birch in my backyard this year. It’s taken 21 years for a self-seeding elm tree in the yard to grow as tall as my house, and at that size, it still looks like a scrawny teenaged tree, not a mature elm. But by the time I’m a grandmother, or at least by the time my grandchildren are grown, these trees will be big enough to extend their branches in warm invitations toward the sky, to any Scarlet Tanagers that happen to be flying overhead. Meanwhile, I’m going to start setting out those sunflower hearts.