I am often asked at this time of year about a bright yellow bird with a red head. This is a Western Tanager. The tanager family is very large; there are over 250 members. Most live in South America, with only a handful making the annual journey to North America to breed. Those that do, however, are very colourful and add a splash of brilliance to our forests.
The Western Tanager is the only species that occurs regularly in BC. This bird is almost entirely yellow, with black wings and a red-orange head. It is just a little smaller than a robin. Western Tanagers are not abundant in our area, but they do occur regularly. Despite their size and bright plumage they seem to go unnoticed by many. This may be due to their habits. They show a preference for coniferous or mixed forests and often forage high in the tree. They generally build their nests in conifers; most are at least five metres above the ground, (some very much higher). Their song is quite similar to that of the American Robin. This further helps them to “blend in” and remain unnoticed.
Only one other tanager regularly breeds in Canada. The Scarlet Tanager breeds in extreme southern Canada from eastern Manitoba east to Nova Scotia. As the name suggests this is a brilliant red bird. The tail and wings are black. In contrast to the Western, the Scarlet Tanager prefers deciduous forests.
Of the 250 tanager species found in South America, only four regularly breed north of the Mexico-US border: the two already discussed plus the Summer Tanager and the Hepatic Tanager. The Summer Tanager is completely red in colour and is found primarily in the southeastern US. The Hepatic is largely red with greyish tones on the back and flanks and is confined to the southwest.
A quick glance through a book of South American birds will quickly reveal that tanagers come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and colours. The red and yellow that we see in North America is only the beginning! I have had the good fortune to visit Peru and Costa Rica in the last few years. During those trips I have seen over 50 species in the tanager family.