Some scarlet tanagers are orange

mtnvoicesLast Saturday, I led a bird identification workshop for the Smoky Mountain Field School. We started out in the morning in a residential area (Minot Park) in Gatlinburg and worked our way into the higher elevations of the national park by late afternoon. The weather at Newfound Gap was perfectly awful: wind, rain, fog, cold, you name it. But it was a good group and we did OK.

Indigo buntings, catbirds, thrashers, warblers, juncos, hawks and lots of other birds made their way onto our checklist. The prettiest bird of the day? A male black-throated warbler at Campbell Overlook. The ugliest bird of the day? A really peculiar looking scarlet tanager. By peculiar looking, I mean orange. 

No bird in our region is more striking than a scarlet tanager. Jet black wings on a trim red almost luminescent body, the male is impossible to overlook. “The scarlet tanager flies through the green foliage as if it would ignite the leaves. You can hardly believe that a living creature can wear such colors,” was the way naturalist and writer Henry David Thoreau described the bird.        

 I almost never encounter the summer tanager (whose entire body is rosy red) in Western North Carolina, but the scarlet tanager is encountered every year — to a greater or lesser extent — during the breeding season (mid-April to mid-October) in mature woodlands (especially slopes with pine and oak) between 2,000 and 5,000 feet in elevation. The bird winters in northwestern South America, where it enjoys the company of various tropical tanagers that do not migrate.  

 The call note used by both the male and female is a distinctive “chip-burr … chip-burr.” The male’s song is not pretty. He sounds like a robin with a sore throat; that is, the notes in the song are hoarse and raspy. Males in adjacent territories often engage in combative counter-singing and will, as a last resort, go beak-to-beak. On our property, a creek sometimes serves as a boundary — the line drawn in the sand, as it were. The males sing defiantly at one another across the water and sometimes make short forays into enemy territory. Meanwhile, the female is busy incubating her eggs. When not squabbling with a nearby male, her mate brings food.

Keep in mind that the female doesn’t resemble her mate except in shape. She is olive-green or yellow-orange in color. Also keep in mind there is a variant form of the male tanager. Orange. My first encounter with an orange scarlet tanager was in the Lake Junaluska area several years ago.

My second was this past Saturday. He was perched in the top of a tree in Gatlinburg singing “Rocky Top” … just kidding ... he was singing “Hold That Tiger.”

Actually, he sounded like what a scarlet tanager’s supposed to sound like. But he was an eyesore. Nothing pretty about that bird.

I suspect this alternate color form is due, in part, to diet. A class of pigments called carotenoids (produced by certain plants) are responsible for the bright yellows seen in goldfinches and yellow warblers as well as the brilliant orangish-yellow of the male Blackburnian warbler. In this event, the orangish coloration of a male scarlet tanager would be due to a “faulty” color-shift in the carotenoid pigments triggered by diet. (Cedar waxwings also experience “faulty” color-shifts related to diet.) It may be that young first-year males are more prone to display this trait than older males. I’m just guessing.   

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..      

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