This brightly colored songbird has a yellow body and black wings with white bars. The red wash of feathers on the head and neck of the male are distinctive. Females do not sport the same colors and are generally olive with darker wings.
Western tanagers are found during the breeding season in the high mountain coniferous or aspen forests of the western U.S. and far up into western Canada. They prefer older second growth and mature forests with more than 70% canopy coverage. In New Mexico these tanagers breed throughout most of the state’s high coniferous forests and may even be seen along the Rio Grande and in the eastern and southern prairies in migration. They migrate south, wintering in Mexico and Central America. During their migration they pass through a variety of habitats, including prairies, dry scrublands, and urban yards.
Western tanagers feed on insects high in the forest canopy, sometimes flying out to capture one on the wing, a behavior called “hawking”. They also forage among grasses and forbs where they find berries and fruits, as well as visiting flowers to take nectar and insects they find there. The female will build an open cup nest out on a tree limb away from the trunk and usually rather high off the ground. She incubates 3-5 eggs for two weeks and then both parents will participate in feeding the nestlings. Life span is probably 3-5 years, and the oldest known bird from banding records was just shy of 8 years old.
A number of predators attack Western tanagers, including hawks, falcons, owls, and of course, domestic cats. Nests are also subjected to predation by jays, Clark’s nutcrackers, owls, and snakes. Brown-headed cowbirds are also known to parasitize Western tanager nests, laying their eggs in the nest to be incubated and later fed by the unsuspecting tanagers. Tanager nesting success can be severely reduced by this type of nest predation.
The Audubon Society predicts some range loss on the eastern extremities of the breeding range as the climate warms, but populations are currently abundant and stable.