For the Birds: Scarlet tanagers can be elusive

Photo by Chris Bosak A Scarlet Tanager perches in a tree in Danbury, Conn., July 2016.
Photo by Chris Bosak A Scarlet Tanager perches in a tree in Danbury, Conn., July 2016.

This has been the first spring/summer since I can remember in which I have not seen a scarlet tanager. I was hot on the trail of a few in the spring, but I never did spot the birds.

Granted, my birding this year has been hampered by foot ailments, but I have still spent enough time out there that I feel I should have seen one or two of these beauties.

The scarlet tanager is one of the most sought-after species in New England in the spring. Their electric red bodies with contrasting black wings make it one of our most unique and beautiful birds. The problem with tanagers is that they mostly hang around the tops of tall trees. Even a bird as bright as a teenager can remain hidden in a full canopy of oak or maple leaves.

When I had my house in the woods a few years ago, I had scarlet tanagers nesting nearby and they would come to the yard frequently. During those years, I would see dozens of tanagers. Well, probably not dozens of different scarlet tanagers, but dozens of sightings of the same few tanagers.

Female scarlet tanagers are even more difficult to find. The species is about as sexually dimorphic as they come and the drab females can hide even better in the tops of the trees. Now that it is August, soon the males will shed their breeding plumage and trade it in for drab olive green feathers, similar to the females and youngsters. That is why you rarely, if ever, see bright red tanagers during the southward migration.

As difficult as it can be to find tanagers sometimes, it can also be tricky to hear them, or at least to identify their song. Scarlet tanagers have been described as sounding like robins with sore throats. I think it is an apt description so when you cannot see the birds, it is hard to tell whether it is a robin or a scarlet tanager up in the canopy. Throw in the somewhat similar song of the rose-breasted grosbeak and you’ve got another point of confusion when it comes to hearing a scarlet tanager’s song.

What is extremely helpful, however, is to learn the call of the scarlet tanager. It sounds like no other bird and is heard often in the woods of New England. Phonetically, it has been described as “chick bree“ and that sounds about right.

Find the call of the scarlet tanager on an app or online field guide such as, and listen to the “chick bree“ call of the tanager. Next time you hear it in the woods, you will recognize it as a tanager and know where to look. Even if you don’t find the bird, you can take heart in knowing that it is up in the canopy somewhere.

Speaking of identifying birds by their songs and calls, I received an email the other day inquiring about how to learn bird calls and songs. I responded by saying there are apps and websites where you can listen to bird sounds, and there is also an app called Merlin that will identify a bird song or call in real time for you based on a recording taken with your smartphone. I could not vouch for the accuracy. In fact I expressed doubt about its accuracy because there are so many factors when it comes to identifying birds by sounds.

Curious, I downloaded the app and give it a shot. Of course, in the summer there aren’t many birds singing, so my sample size was pretty small. I was impressed with the results, although not blown away. It recognized the call of a black-capped chickadee and the song and harsh notes of a Carolina wren, but it missed a few other sounds and told me a pileated woodpecker was nearby when I am quite sure that one of these large woodpeckers did not make any sounds while I was making the recording. That would have been hard to miss. 

I am looking forward to giving it a shot and putting it to a more stern test next spring. I’m curious how it does when several soft-singing warblers are in the area. For those of you who have tried Merlin, or some other bird song identification app, drop me a line and let me know your thoughts about its effectiveness.

In the meantime, enjoy the rest of summer and keep your eyes open for young birds in the woods and at the feeders. 

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