Photograph by Robbie George, Nat Geo Image Collection
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A scarlet tanager perches perches on a tree branch.

Photograph by Robbie George, Nat Geo Image Collection

Scarlet Tanager

About the Scarlet Tanager

The breeding male scarlet tanager is one of the easier North American birds to identify. Often seen in small flocks during migration, the scarlet sings on the breeding grounds and feeds high in the canopy. It moves sluggishly and can be difficult to spot. Monotypic. Length 7".


Sexually dimorphic. Both sexes have whitish wing lining. Breeding male: unmistakable, brilliant red all over, with black wings and tail. The bill, somewhat short and stubby, is thick at the base. Breeding female: females are entirely yellow-green, with yellower throat and sides, dark wings and tail, a thin eye ring, and wing coverts with greenish edging. Some adult females show weak wing bars. Winter adult: entirely greenish ­yellow, but retains black scapulars, wings, and tail. Late summer birds can be blotchy red. Im­mature male: resembles adult female but tends to be brighter yellow and has black scapulars and wing coverts. Immature female: more problematic. Entirely greenish yellow with grayer wings and tail.

Similar Species

Immature females are simi­lar to some summers that lack orange tones. Note the scarlet’s gray undersurface to tail, which is yellowish in the summer. An adult female western typically shows more distinct wing bars, a grayer back contrasting with yellower rump, and a longer, paler bill.


Call: a hoarse chip or chip-burr, unlike other tanagers. Song: robinlike but raspy. Very similar to western tanager’s, a querit queer querry querit queer. Flight note: a whistled puwi.

Status and Distribution

Commonly nests in deciduous forests in the eastern half of North America. Breeding: arrives late April–mid-May. Migration: trans-Gulf migrant. Winter: mainly in Amazonia and the foothills of the Andes in South America. Vagrant: casual west to California coast, mainly in October and November.


Sensitive to forest fragmentation and parasitism by brown-­headed cowbirds.

—From the National Geographic book Complete Birds of North America, 2006