Summer Tanager

Piranga rubra

  • Version: 2.0 — Published August 31, 2012
  • W. Douglas Robinson

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Figure 1. Distribution of the Summer Tanager.

Distribution of the Summer Tanager in North and Middle America. This species winters south to n. South America.

Adult male Summer Tanager, eastern subspecies, Winter Park, FL, 19 October.

Adult male Summer Tanagers are among the most striking of North American birds. Essentially all-red with a large pale bill that varies from yellowish-horn to grayish washed. Best told from Scarlet Tanager by red, not black, wings. Birds of the eastern subspecies, P. r. rubra, average overall smaller, with a smaller bill, and generally brighter plumage than the western subspecies. They breed across the East west to central Texas. The following is a link to this photographer's website:

First-summer male Summer Tanager, Hamilton Co., IA, 5 June.

Juvenile sexes are similar when fledged and through the first fall, but in late fall and winter they undergo a protracted preformative molt, resulting in a patchy red and yellow plumage by spring. The limited prealternate molt in spring also adds red feathers on males, but they retain some yellow patches through the first summer. After a complete prebasic molt late in the first summer, they will be all-red. The following is a link to this photographer's website:

With its distinctive rosy red plumage and unique song, the adult male Summer Tanager is arguably one of North America's most striking neotropical migrants. This tanager is found across the southern United States from California to Florida, and in the eastern United States as far north as 40°N. Three subspecies are currently recognized, with 2 widespread that differ genetically: P. r. cooperi, which breeds in the Southwest from California to west Texas and northern Mexico, and P. r. rubra, which occupies much of the remainder of the range to the east.

Noted for its consumption of bees and wasps on both its breeding and wintering ranges, the Summer Tanager also readily eats fruits such as mulberries, blackberries, pokeweed, Cecropia, citrus, and bananas. Western populations inhabit riparian woodlands and, at higher elevations, woodlands dominated by mesquite and salt cedar. Eastern populations favor open deciduous forests or, in the southeast, pine-oak forests, often near gaps and edges. Surprisingly, little is known of their breeding biology or reproductive success. The North American breeding population has remained generally stable over the last 20 years, although some populations have declined in the eastern United States and along the Colorado River in the Southwest.

Recommended Citation

Robinson, W. D. (2012). Summer Tanager (Piranga rubra), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.