Summer Tanager, Piranga rubra

Also known in Tennessee as the "summer redbird," the Summer Tanager is one of the most striking birds that nests in the state. It is a bit difficult to see, however, because it prefers to forage high in the tree canopy. The song of the Summer Tanager can be confused with the song of the Scarlet Tanager, but their picky-tucky-tuck call is unique. Summer Tanagers breed across the southern United States to northern Mexico, and northward to southern Iowa and New Jersey; they spend the winter in Central and northern South America. They arrive in Tennessee in late April and migrate south by early October.

Description: The male and female look completely different. The male is entirely red and the female is a entirely dull yellow, but both have a stout pale bill. Males do not attain their fully red plumage until their second fall, so first-year breeding birds may be patterned yellow-orange and red. Males retain their red plumage throughout the year.
Length: 7.75"
Wingspan: 12"
Weight: 1 oz

Voice: The song is a series of robin-like musical phrases, some with a slightly buzzy quality. The call is a unique picky-tucky-tuck or pick it up pick it up.

Similar Species:

  • Male Northern Cardinals are overall red, but have a black face, conical red bill, and an obvious crest.
  • Scarlet Tanager males are overall scarlet-red, but have black wings; the female is overall greenish-yellow with darker wings and a thinner bill. These two tanagers can have overlapping territories in Tennessee.
  • The song of the Scarlet Tanager tends to be more hoarse, but similar to the Summer Tanager's song, however, their chik-burrr call, is distinctive.
  • Female orioles have white wing-bars and more pointed bills.

Habitat: Summer Tanagers breed in deciduous forests, and occasionally in pine-oak forests.

Diet: Summer Tanagers eat insects, especially bees and wasps, and some fruit outside of breeding season.

Nesting and reproduction: In Tennessee egg laying peaks in the second half of May.

Clutch Size: Usually 3 to 4 eggs, with a range of 2 to 5.

Incubation: The female incubates the eggs for 12 to 14 days, and is frequently fed by the male.

Fledging: Both adults feed the young, which fledge in about 10 days. Fledglings remain in the parent's territory for another 3 weeks.

Nest: The female builds the shallow cup-nest of dried or fresh grasses, weed stems, and lines it with fine grasses and rootlets. The nest is usually placed in a fork on a horizontal branch far from the trunk. Nest heights in Tennessee range from 4 feet to 30 feet, with an average of 13 feet.

Status in Tennessee: The Summer Tanager is a fairly common summer resident of low elevation forests across the state. It arrives in Tennessee in late April and departs by early October. The population appears to be stable.

Dynamic map of Summer Tanager eBird observations in Tennessee

Fun Facts:

  • The Summer Tanager is a bee and wasp specialist. They capture bees and wasps in flight, killing them by beating them against a branch, and removing the stinger before consuming the insect.
  • Where Summer and Scarlet tanagers occur together, the Summer Tanager prefers to breed in shorter and more open woodlands.
  • Based on genetic studies, in 2009 taxonomists took Piranga tanagers from their own family (Thraupidae) and placed them in Cardinalidae with buntings, cardinals, and grosbeaks.
  • Older female Summer Tanagers may have some red feathers.

Obsolete English Names: summer redbird, Cooper's tanager

Best places to see in Tennessee: Summer Tanagers are most easily seen in the spring, before the trees leaf out, in mature forests in Middle and West Tennessee.