Bird Identification – The Scarlet Tanager – Black-winged Redbird
People who are now living can remember when scarlet tanagers were as common as robins. Where are they now? You see a redbird at the north so rarely that a thrill of excitement is felt when a flash of scarlet among the tree-tops makes the day a red-letter one on your bird calendar. Alas! He has, what has certainly proved to be, the fatal gift of beauty. A scarlet coat with black wings and tail, worn by a bird larger than a sparrow, makes a shining mark among the foliage for the shot gun and sling shot. Thousands of tanagers have been slaughtered to be worn on the unthinking heads of vain girls and women. Many are killed every year, during the spring and autumn migrations, by flying against the great lighthouses along our coasts, the birds’ highway of travel. Tanagers, who are only summer visitors from the tropics, are peculiarly susceptible to cold; a sudden change in the weather, a drop in the thermometer some time in May just after they have come here from a warmer climate and are still especially sensitive, will kill off great numbers in the north woods and in Canada. They really should postpone their journey a little while until the weather becomes settled and there are fewer fogs on the coast.
The male tanager, in his wedding garment, is sometimes mistaken for a cardinal by people who only half see any object they look at. Bird study sharpens the sight wonderfully, and teaches boys and girls the importance of accurate observation. The cardinal, a larger bird, is almost as large as a robin; he is a rich, deep red all over, and not a scarlet shade. Moreover he wears a pointed crest by which you may always know him, while the tanager, whose head is smooth, may be certainly named by his black wings and tail. After the nesting season, the tanager begins to moult and then he is a queer looking object indeed in his motley coat. Only little patches and streaks of scarlet remain here and there among the olive green feathers that gradually replace the red ones until, in winter, he becomes completely transformed into an olive bird with black wings, looking like his immature sons. How tiresome to have to change his feathers again toward spring before he can hope to woo and win a mate!
The exacting little lady bird, who demands such fine feathers, is herself quietly clad in light olive green with a more yellowish tinge on her lighter breast that she may be in perfect colour harmony with the leaves she lives and nests among. If she, too, wore scarlet, I fear the tanager tribe would have disappeared years ago. Happily her protective colouring, which betrays no nest secrets, has saved the species. Is it not strange that birds, who spend the rest of their lives among the tree-tops, hunting among the foliage for insects and small fruit, should nest so low? Sometimes they place their cradle on a limb only six feet from the ground. It is a rather shabby, poorly made affair which very lively tanager youngster might easily tumble apart. “Chip—churr” calls the gorgeous father from the tree top, and a reassuring reply that all is well with the nest floats up to him from his mate. He does not often risk its safety by showing himself near the nest, securely hidden by the foliage below. If, toward the end of May, you hear him singing his real song, which is somewhat like an oriole’s mellow, cheery carol, you may be sure he is planning to spend the summer in your neighbourhood. Not many miles from New York there is a house built on the top of a hill, whose sides are covered with oak and chestnut woods, where one may be sure to see tanagers among the tree tops from any window at any hour of any day from May to October. Several nests in those woods are saddled on to the horizontal limbs of the white oak. Not many people are blessed with such beautiful, interesting neighbours.
In the Southern States, one of the most familiar birds in the orange groves, orchards, and woods of pine and oak, is the summer tanager, another smooth-headed redbird, but without a black feather on him. He is fire red all over. Of the three hundred and fifty species of tanagers in the tropics, only two think it worth while to visit the Eastern United States and one of these frequently suffers because he starts too early. Suppose all should suddenly decide to come north some spring and spend the summer with us! Our woods would be filled with some of the most brilliant and gorgeous birds in the world. Don’t you wish all the members of the family were as adventurous as the scarlet tanager?