On Tanagers

photo courtesy of Helen LeVasseur

It’s true; even we grizzled, hard-nosed, wing-bar counting, crawling through the weeds birders enjoy watching pretty birds more than we enjoy watching plain birds.  It’s just human nature isn’t it, to like bright shiny things.  Tanagers are bright…Tanagers are shiny.  Some folks even call Tanagers ‘the butterflies of the bird world’.  But don’t get me wrong…we grizzled birders also absolutely get off on counting wing bars on the drabbest of our feathered friends.

Think back. How many of us, during that first trip to Costa Rica, can remember our first encounter with a Scarlet-rumped (Cherrie’s/Passerini’s) Tanager?  Remember the thrill? My first spot came in 1979 in a sleepy little two-hostel town called Manuel Antonio.  I still have a dusty 35 millimeter slide of that Scarlet-rump somewhere.  

And now, when your family, your friends come down to visit.  Do these phrases sound familiar?

‘Oooohhh, what’s that black and red bird?’

‘Oh, I just love those sky blue birds!’

‘Oh my god!  That bird on your feeder…it must have seven different colors!  What is it?’

Those comments are directed at Tanagers my friend. Charismatic, those Tanagers are.

I even named my entire property after Tanagers, using the made up name ‘EL TANGARAL’; which means, (because I say so), the place of Tanagers; or more specifically a menagerie of Tanagers.

FYI: If you’re interested in some truly fantastic musings and art on Tanagers, I recommend you find a copy of ‘The Life of the Tanager’ by the speedy and powerful Alexander Skutch (also known as the Audubon of Central America).  https://www.amazon.com/Life-Tanager-Comstock-Alexander-Skutch/dp/0801422264

Here then are my thoughts on a few of our southern zone Tanager species.

#1: Shark’s Eyes

One of our less brightly-colored Tanagers is the Palm Tanager.  The Palm Tanager looks quite similar to our Blue-Gray Tanager but is colored a soft, dusty olive green with a dark patch on the primary wing.  Appropriately named, the Palm Tanager seems to prefer hanging out in palm trees, usually up rather high.  I start off with Palmy for this reason; I consider the Palm Tanager to be ‘King of the Tanagers’ and I’ll tell you why.  Back when we all had bird feeders and bird feeder contests I noticed there was a distinct bird feeder hierarchy.  Species-A chases off Species-B and is then chased off by yet another, Species-C.  Usually this hierarchy is simply based upon size.  Bigger birds intimidate and chase off smaller birds.  I’ll bet you’ve noticed this.  But I noticed that Palmy…Palmy with those black shark-like eyes, would invariably stand up to bigger birds…like the Clay-colored Thrushes, the Saltators, and even the Woodpeckers; Palmy would just stare down those bigger birds and continue dining on banana.  We all knew a kid in school like this; not the biggest or strongest or smartest kid; but there was something…something deep-down in that kid’s eyes (boy or girl) that made us turn and slowly back away.  That’s who the Palm Tanager is.

Public domain photo

#2. The Opportunist

Here’s some good advice.  If you want to succeed in life…learn how to do a variety of things well; things other people can’t or won’t do, be willing to try new things, don’t get stuck in a rut.  Do this and you’ll succeed.  This philosophy describes our previously mentioned Scarlet-rumped Tanager (the black and red one)…(but the female is brown and orange).  You’ll observe that Scarlet-rumped Tanagers have discovered a variety of ways to make ends meet, to bring home the bacon…eating seeds, fruits and insects right off the ground, eating seeds, fruits and insects up in the trees (at all levels), and they are also quite adept at getting a good meal by fly-catching. In many areas of Costa Rica the Scarlet-rumped Tanager is the most commonly seen and numerous Tanager…maybe even bird.  Very strong family values these birds have.  Early hatchling birds have no problem helping out their parents with the feeding and care of late season hatchlings.  Here’s another good skill they’ve developed; they don’t seem to mind living with and around people and if you haven’t noticed we people are damn near everywhere.

photo courtesy of Jo Davidson

#3.  Ooh-Aah

Private and somewhat of a feeding specialist, the Bay-Headed Tanager never fails to elicit a deep-throated ‘Ooohh, aaahh’ from birders and non-birders alike when spotted.  Bright green, bright blue with a brownish/red (bay) head the Bay-headed Tanager just seems to LOVE eating melastome berries and minding its own business.  Bay-heads also glean insects but berries are their dominant food.  Ask any bird bander…if you’ve held many Bay-headed Tanagers in your bare hands, by the end of the day you’ll look like you’re wearing purple gloves.

Bay-headed Tanager (photo by Jeff Worman)

Of course we have many more Tanagers down here plus some that migrate down from North America. And let us not forget the closely related and spectacularly colored Honeycreepers, Dacnis and the Euphonias.  Easy on the eyes; truly fun to watch.

*Please do me a favor and don’t mention to any Bird Taxonomists that I said Euphonias are closely related to the Tanagers.  Apparently they’re not that closely related and even though most Bird Taxonomists are slight, frail and myopic…they can also be wretched and spiteful when angered.  I’ll bet a lot of Bird Taxonomists have Palm Tanager eyes.*

Shining Honeycreeper: photo courtesy of Helen LeVasseur
Spot-crowned Euphonia: photo courtesy of Jo Davidson