On Tanagers

It is true; even we grizzled, hard-nosed, wing-bar counting, crawling through the weeds briders enjoy watching pretty birds more than we enjoy watching plain birds.  I think it’s just human nature to like bright shiny things.  Tanagers are bright…Tanagers are shiny.  Some folks even call Tanagers ‘the butterflies of the bird world’.  

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?  My first came in 1979 in a sleepy little two-hostel town called Manuel Antonio.  I still have a dusty 35 millimeter slide of that bird somewhere.  

So your family, your friends have come down to visit.  Does this 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?’

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 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 chase off smaller birds.  I’ll bet you’ve noticed this.  But Palmy…Palmy with those black shark-like eyes, I noticed would invariably stand up to bigger birds like the Clay-corored Thrushes, Saltators, and even 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 deep-down in this kid’s eyes (boy or girl) that made us slowly back away.  That’s who the Palm Tanager is.

#2. The Opportunist

Here’s some good advice.  If you want to succeed in life…learn how to do a variety of 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 find Scarlet-rumped Tanagers making a living in a variety of ways…eating seeds, fruits and insects on the ground, eating seeds, fruits and insects in the trees (at all levels), and they are also quite adept at flycatching,   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 around people and if you haven’t noticed we people are almost everywhere.

#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.  Bay-heads also glean insects but berries are the dominant food.  Ask any bird bander…if you hold many Bay-headed Tanagers in your bare hand by the end of the day you’ll look like you’re wearing purple gloves.

Of course we have many more Tanagers down here; plus 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 that I said that Euphonias are closely related to the Tanagers to any Bird Taxonomists.  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.*