- Photo: Lenor Lavelle
During breeding season the male sports a vivid orange-red head due to the presence of rhodoxanthin, a pigment acquired from the insects in his diet.
On June 6, 1806, Meriwether Lewis wrote in his journal “we meet with a beautiful little bird….” He called the brightly colored bird he encountered at Camp Chopunnish, Idaho County, Idaho, a Louisiana Tanager. We know it today as the Western Tanager.
Western Tanagers are six to seven inches long. The male has a bright yellow body with black wings and two wing bars, the upper yellow and lower white. During breeding season he sports a vivid orangey red head due to the presence of rhodoxanthin, a pigment acquired from the insects in his diet. Rhodoxanthin is an uncommon pigment in birds. The female is a pale greenish gray, with duller yellow body. She lacks the red head but has the two wing bars. The Western Tanagers primary food source is insects but they also eat fruit, berries and flower nectar. They sometimes “flycatch” (this is to fly out from a perch to snatch an insect and then returning to the same or a different perch).
In the spring and fall these long-distance migrators pass through the lowlands of the west from their winter habitats in Central Mexico and as far south as Costa Rica. Western Tanagers migrate at night and at high altitudes.
They are monogamous and breed in coniferous and mixed deciduous-coniferous forests in the Western US and Northwest Territory in Canada. The female builds a loose, saucer-shaped nest of twigs, grasses, bark strips and rootlets lined with grass, hair and fine plant fibers on a high horizontal branch far out from the trunk. She lays 3 to 5 bluish green eggs with irregular brown spots which she incubates for about 13 days. Once hatched both parents feed the chicks until they leave the nest in 11 days.
The Western Tanager song is a series of short chirpy robin-like phrases.
This photograph was taken in mid-May on the author’s patio in the Foothills about three miles from Sabino Canyon. A pair of Western Tanagers lingered there for three days making frequent visits to pineapple guava bushes and devouring the blossoms.