Carolyn Gritzmaker Indian Trail Master Naturalist
Two kinds of redbirds can be found locally during the summer months. One is, of course, the Northern Cardinal(Cardinalis cardinalis). The other is the summer tanager(Piranga rubra), or summer redbird.
The adult male tanager is a bright, rosy red year around and has a rather heavy yellowish bill. It is sometimes called the “smooth-headed redbird” because, unlike the cardinal, it has no crest. Female and immature summer tanagers are mustard yellow below and olive above. First year males (those born the preceeding year) are a patchy red and green, and don’t acquire the full adult’s red plumage until they molt in their second fall. Slightly smaller than a cardinal, the summer tanager is 7 ¾ inches long, with a wingspan of 12 inches. The cardinal is 8 ¾ inches long.
After spending the winter months in Mexico, Central and South America, the summer tanager migrates north and arrives in central Texas in April. Here it is found in dry deciduous woods, stands of oak, and in willows and cottonwoods along streams.
In spite of the male’s bright coloring, the summer tanager is surprisingly hard to see since it is a rather solitary bird and spends so much time high in the tops of trees where it is concealed by the foliage. If you are not familiar with its song, it is easy to completely overlook the bird. The song, “cheerily, cheerup, cheerio,”is similar to that of a robin, but louder, more hurried and longer lasting. Also, tanagers will often give a short descending call that sounds a little like “pih-tuck”!
A favorite food of the summer tanager is bees, and they have been observed catching bees in the air like a flycatcher. They also eat wasps and will raid the open-comb wasp nests hanging under eaves and porch ceilings for the wasp larvae. In addition to these and many other insects, tanagers also eat small fruits.
The female tanager alone builds the nest and incubates the eggs. The nest is usually located well out on a horizontal limb, from 10 to 35 feet above the ground. It is a shallow cup, loosely built of weed stems, leaves, bark and grasses. Here she will lay four pale blue or green eggs which are speckled with brown.
A fairly common summer resident in Ellis and Navarro counties, look and listen for the summer tanager from early April until September.