Two tanagers talk up a storm: So what are they saying?

by Anders Gyllenhaal
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The male Summer Tanager. Photos by Anders Gyllenhaal

It takes some time and luck to spot the Summer Tanager, since these birds spend much of their time hidden away from view, at the very top of the canopy.

But when you do get to see one, even if it’s just a glimpse, the sight stays with you like artwork.

The male tanager is the only completely red bird in North America, which makes it a striking sight against the green of the trees where it hangs out. And the female is a pale yellow with greenish tints that creates a sharp contrast when the two are side by side.

The female tanager chattered almost nonstop this morning.

We had the great fortune of camping just beneath a pair of Summer Tanagers not long ago in central Tennessee outside Nashville. Once we figured out their favorite spots, and they got used to us, we were treated to a full study of how these two birds relate, communicate, sometimes seem to argue and take care of one another.

Here’s a video that gets almost all of that across, as the two Summer Tanagers chatter back and forth across the canopy:

We can’t know exactly what they’re going on about in this video, but new research says birds have a far wider range of exchanges than once thought. They could be discussing their nesting needs, or letting each other know where the other is, or she could be asking for something more to eat as she guards the nest. They could even be in the midst of an argument. 

A fascinating new book by Jennifer Ackerman, The Bird Way, A New Look at How Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent and Think, says birds have a rich social life. She says the language of birds can be complicated, emotional, and has its own syntax. This book suggests that birds will even lie at times, implying a level of sophistication far beyond what we always thought.

In the encounters we watched, the female was the more vocal, delivering long complicated songs that had her jumping around her perch and raising and lowering her head. The male answered mostly in single chirps that surely looked like he was going along with what he was hearing.

Birdsongs are primarily about mating and defending territory, but exchanges like this one that seem more like household conversations are part of the repertoire as well. The Cornell Lab’s Handbook of Bird Biology, the bible of bird life, says bird pairs of all kinds are constantly seen singing duets, chatting back and forth and sometimes simply working on their relationships by staying in close touch.

The handbook points out that until recently, researchers studying birdsongs had only their ears to rely on. Now, a whole set of sophisticated listening and digital recording tools are helping to analyze bird communication. We may soon know a lot more about what birds like the tanagers are up to.

Our two tanagers also spent a lot of their day looking for food.

They feed on all manner of insects — bees, wasps, flies, grasshoppers, spiders, ants and termites – along with fruit, citrus and weeds. They’ll catch insects in midair and bring them back to a branch to consume. The female builds the nest up in the canopy, but the two work together, with the male accompanying her as she goes.

The male tanager has just snagged a dragonfly and is working on finishing it off.

The tanager has a series of whistling songs, not unlike the American Robin. Here are some samples.

Tanager pairs are monogamous during their mating, but only for one season. So these two will go separate ways when they migrate south sometime this month.

The female collects materials for their nest.

The Summer Tanager is found all across the southern half of the U.S. and spends the winter in Central America and northern parts of South America. Here’s an animation of their travels through the year from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, showing them headed out in October to go south:

 

 

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