Tanagers are a large family (240-300 species) of colorful tropical and semi-tropical birds inhabiting the American continents. Four species of the genus, Piranga, migrate and breed in North America and can be spotted in Texas. Those species are P. rubra, Summer Tanager, P. flava, Hepatic Tanager, P. olivacea, Scarlet Tanager, and P. ludoviciana, Western Tanager. However, individual birds can sometimes be difficult to identify which species they are assigned to.
The variable coloration of these perching songbirds often confuses accurate species and gender identification. Overall coloration of the female and immature North American tanagers varies within and between species, but generally they tend towards gray-green or greenish-yellow plumage.
Western and Scarlet Tanager females both vary from grayish to olive-yellow hues, but the former is larger in overall size and bill. The stubbier Scarlet Tanager has a shorter tail, and, to confuse matters even more, a rare orange morph does occur. Female Summer Tanagers are the most variable, ranging from grayish to orange-red. Likewise, the Hepatic Tanager females and immature males both sport olive or orange yellow coloration, although both sexes have a darker bill than the other species.
Another complication identifying females and males is their molts. Feather molts replace worn feathers, alternate between courtship plumages, and possibly to improve hygiene. Molt timing and frequency are very important and each species has its own pattern. One common pattern consists of a partial body molt before the breeding season and a bird assumes courtship color, then a complete molt of all the feathers, including flight feathers, after breeding and before migration.
Feathers are usually molted in a gradual pattern so its ability to fly or to protect its body from the elements is not compromised. For example, the brilliant red and black Scarlet Tanager males molt to greenish-yellow during the winter months, looking much like females, which further confuses identification.
Because historic migration and habitat patterns are recently changing in many species of birds, we can now add another tanager to the list of those spotted in Texas: Flame-colored Tanager (P. bidentata). A traditional resident of northern Mexico and the Panama area, this species has been increasingly sited in west Texas and southeastern Arizona. Although closely similar to the Western Tanager, both males and females of this species may be the easiest to identify because of their streaked back (yellow and black of females or bright orange and black streaks of males).
Although accurate identification of these colorful Tanagers can be confusing and complicated, this shouldn’t detract from enjoying their presence. A detailed bird guide and binoculars might aid dedicated birdwatchers. Note differences of coloration of the wings, the back, and head. A quick view of beak coloration may help, too. Be aware that the underbody and underwing plumage is not helpful because several species have similar colors. Another warning is that taxonomists recently (~ 2002) moved the genus Piranga from the Tanager family to that of the Cardinals. Keep that in mind during any Internet searches and guidebook pursuits.
(photos courtesy of Rick Ethan; local Terlingua Ranch wildlife enthusiast)