Bird Lore: Western Tanagers

Photo by LeRoy Van Hee
Photo by LeRoy Van Hee

Western Tanagers pass through Edmonds at this time of year, on their way to nesting locations in Washington and British Columbia. Most tanager species are permanent residents of the American tropics. The four that summer in North America are neotropic migrants. That phrase refers to all the birds that head north from the tropical zones of the Western Hemisphere to breed and then return to those zones for the winter.

Tanagers that remain in the tropic are primarily fruit eaters. Western Tanagers will forage for berries such as mulberries and our native elderberries. Insects such as wasps, beetles, ants and termites, make up the larger part of their diet. Western Tanagers forage mostly in the tops of trees. They will fly out to catch insects in midair. They will also visit flowers. It is thought that they feed on nectar as well as the insects found in flowers.

Western Tanagers are not known to breed in Edmonds although Snohomish County breeding pairs can be found in the foothills and Cascades up to about 3,000 feet. Nest sites are usually in conifers such as firs or pines but they can also be found in deciduous trees such as aspen.

Peak spring migration begins in early to mid May. In the last few days, Western Tanagers have been found in the vicinity of the Edmonds marsh. The bird in the above photo is a male that was foraging for insects in the trees on the north side of the marsh. Tanagers should be seen in Yost and other forested parks over the next week or two. After nesting, their fall migration peaks from mid-August to early September. They are not found in Edmonds during fall migration.

Carol Riddell, author of our new “Bird Lore” feature, manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.

One Reply to “Bird Lore: Western Tanagers”

  1. Excellent write-up on one of my favorite species. Once I figured out what they sounded like I was happily surprised at how often I found them. They’re often burried high in trees, but they have a unique call that can help you know when they’re there.

    I had a pair of Western Tanagers in Yost Park, on 7/25/2012. I would’ve never known they were there until a Barred Owl flew in a worked them into a frenzy. Breeders, post breeders? I don’t know, but there’s at least one non-spring record for Edmonds.


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