MN Backyard Birds
One of the most colorful songbirds to see in the summer is the scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea). This tropical bird migrates from Central and South America each spring to our neck of the woods. This is a bird that is often associated with mature oak forest of central Minnesota, and needs large tracts of continuous habitat. The scarlet tanager is a canopy bird so seeing the flashes of red and black can be difficult high up in trees, but its short call note “chick-burr” indicates its presence. Let’s learn more about this tropical migrant that visits our area each year.
The Scarlet Tanager is seven inches tall and is the smallest of 4 species of Tanagers found in the United States. (The other tanagers include the summer tanager, western tanager and hepatic tanager). The male in spring plumage is almost neon red with jet black wings, with the female olive green with dark wings. No other songbird has this dramatic contrast like the Scarlet Tanager. During migration this bird may visit bird feeders, but other than that its habitat is strictly mature oak/pine forest where large contiguous tracts exist.
The bird’s diet mainly consists of insects found high in the oak/pine canopy. Occasionally it can be seen “fly-catching” for small insects. Also, the scarlet tanager eats some summer fruits when available, such as cherry and native fruiting trees or shrubs found within its range. These colorful birds can also be attracted to your backyard with orange halves, suet cakes, seed and mealworms. Their winter diet in the tropics might include more fruit and fewer insects.
Tanagers, warblers and vireos are in a group of birds known as neotropical migrants birds that winter in Central and South America but migrate to the U.S. to nest. Scarlet tanagers arrive in our area around the second week in May and are generally gone by the end of September. Their wintering area is not well known, perhaps spending time in the large coffee plantations. While birding in Costa Rica in 1993 we did see many tanagers. Many of our long distance migrants encounter deadly obstacles and hazards during their journeys. Each year millions of birds die from hitting window glass from residential homes and commercial buildings along with other structures.
Fragmentation occurs when a large tract of habitat becomes broken up into smaller pieces. Some examples include agriculture and urban development. In the past large scale logging operations called “clear-cuts” created a patchwork of forest types over the landscape. Today most of the fragmentation is occurring at a rapid pace due to the need of development. Many bird conservation organizations are concerned with the amount and rate that the habitat is getting converted into other uses. A large concern is the considerable loss of habitat found on their wintering grounds where large scale clear cuts occur frequently, especially for cattle and coffee. Unfortunately this bird is highly susceptible to brood parasitism in smaller fragmented forests by the Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater). A female cowbird will find nests of tanagers, warblers and vireos to lay its eggs in, leaving the host parent to raise and care for its young. In most cases the cowbird chick hatches first and is quite bigger so it simply out competes the host young for food. Studies show in smaller tracts that brood parasitism is at about 70 percent. Look for coffee labeled “bird friendly” or “shade grown” to help conserve our birds.
Your first sighting of a scarlet tanager will last a lifetime. I still remember the one I saw in Costa Rica. Look for this tropical bird during the spring migration and listen for the call note “chip-burr.” Maybe entice the birds to your backyard with a piece of fruit like an orange half; you might be in for a special treat to have one visit your feeder. The Northland Arboretum in Brainerd is a good place to look for them as they do nest in this Important Bird Area(IBA). Happy Birding!
Judd Brink is the owner of MN Backyard Birds in the Brainerd Lakes area. MN Backyard Birds provides birdscaping for homeowners and businesses to attract and enjoy more colorful songbirds. The business was recently featured on Kare 11 news with Belinda Jensen and MN Bound with Ron Schara. For more information about birdscaping or a free backyard consultation visit our new website birdminnesota.com or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org