Vancouver Avian Research Centre

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Species: Western Tanager Piranga ludoviciana


Among the dazzling array of neo-tropical migrants that pass through Vancouver in the spring, none can quite match the splendour of our Western Tanager. Clad in brilliant yellow and red, the experience of watching a flock of these stunning birds move through a grove of fresh leaved alders is to feel momentarily transported to some tropical paradise (without the cost of air fare).


General: Despite striking red, yellow, and black markings, the Western Tanager is a surprisingly inconspicuous bird of the western coniferous and mixed deciduous/coniferous forests more often heard than seen. An adult is slightly smaller than a robin, 7.25” long with an 11.5” wingspan, weighing an average of 28 grams. An always-yellowish body contrasts with dark wings and white wingbars.

Smaller than a robin, 7.25” long with an 11.5” wingspan. An always yellowish body contrasts with dark wings and white wingbars. Large eyes contribute to a “gentle” expression.

Adult Male: In breeding plumage the adult male is one of our most spectacular birds, sporting a bright red head and a vivid yellow body, contrasted smartly with black wings, tail, and back. White wingbars and a yellow rump put the finishing touches on this bird of impeccable flair. The non-breeding male has forfeited the red from his head (but may still retain it on his lores and forehead) and though his yellow has become more subdued he remains more vividly coloured than his now disinterested paramour.

Adult female: A Subtly coloured bird, the female tanager has a yellow-grey body and darker grey-black wings. It is hard to imagine that the brilliantly coloured males see anything of interest in her subdued plumage, though perhaps her mate has a more discerning eye for her charms than the easily bedazzled birder.
Juvenile: Nearly identical to female.

Similar Species: A female/non-breeding Bullock’s Oriole (Icterus bullockii) looks very similar: however the head and beak are differently shaped with the oriole having a thinner more pointed bill and a black eyeline.

Behaviour: Forages slowly and deliberately though the trees, also hawks for flying insects in mid-air.

Habitat: Breeds in coniferous forests, but in migration they can be found in nearly any treed area including urban parks and gardens.


As one would guess from its vibrant plumage the Western Tanager comes to us from the neo-tropics and returns there diligently each fall. The diet is primarily insects but also includes fruit. Its song resembles a hoarse robin.

Conservation Status:

“Least Concern”, but like all inhabitants of our coastal and boreal forests continued deforestation could well pose a grave threat to their survival.
Capture Rates

Western Tanager preferred habitat is open coniferous or mixed coniferous-deciduous forests. They are therefore not seen in high numbers directly around our banding station except during the periods of May/June and August/September. Capture rates (2010-2012; standardized as birds captured per 100 net hours) during these periods reflect dispersal to/from breeding areas when fruit and other food is especially plentiful. Tanagers are medium distance migrants, moving south for the winter as seen by our zero capture rates between October and April.


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