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Western Tanager often winter in Central America

By on July 26, 2021 in Columnist with 0 Comments

By Bruce McCammon

Have you ever stopped to think about why we only see some bird species during short periods each year?

Migratory birds pass through our area each year as they move to their breeding grounds and then return to their respective wintering areas.

Neotropical birds are those that spend our winters in tropical regions south of the Tropic of Cancer and return to breed in the United States and Canada. North central Washington hosts one neotropical tanager — the Western Tanager.

Tanagers are some of the most colorful bird species on earth.

Anyone who has visited tropical countries like Costa Rica or Ecuador quickly realizes that brightly colored tanagers are plentiful.

The male Western Tanager is one of the most colorful birds in our area.

The global diversity of tanagers is a bit staggering. Depending on who you look to as an authority for bird species, you will find about 370 tanager species and 685 subspecies.

Given that, the four species of tanagers in the United States seems pretty small. So, it seems, that we should celebrate the Western Tanager, the one tanager species we get to see in north central Washington, when they arrive from their wintering grounds in Mexico and Central America.

Western Tanagers breed from Arizona to Canada and migrate through areas as far east as Colorado or Wyoming.

Wintering in Central America and Mexico, they arrive in our area in late May and are usually gone by the end of September. Peak times to see this remarkable bird are May, June, and July.

They are commonly seen in conifer forests. Look for them as small flocks in the treetops. They also may accompany Black-headed Grosbeaks in mixed flocks.

It always pays, however, to keep your eyes open for them. I’ve seen them in orchards and riparian shrubs in the Horan Natural Area in Wenatchee.

One of the joys of bird watching is that you never know what may show up. It’s always good to carry your binoculars when you head out for a walk, hike, or drive.

The male Western Tanager is one of the most colorful birds in our area. The male has an orange-red head, a bright yellow body, and black wings, back and tail.

The red color on their heads comes from the insects they eat. While they eat mostly insects, they will eat fruit from hawthorn, elderberry, mulberry and serviceberry plants. They also have a history of being voracious cherry-eaters.

The bright yellow body may be easily confused with the Bullock’s Oriole but the head color and pattern make it easy to tell the two species apart.

Today, the Western Tanager is considered to be a bird species of “Least Concern.”

Typical threats to birds such as pesticides, collisions, predation, and habitat degradation have not, yet, caused the Western Tanager to be placed in a more sensitive ecological classification. That’s great news since we have such limited opportunities to see them.

Given that the Western Tanager thrives on native plants like elderberry and serviceberry, you can help them by emphasizing native plants in your yard or gardens.

Planting native plants is one thing we can all do to help not only the Western Tanager but other birds and animals as well. Can you help?

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