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Natural North Dakota

Scarlet Tanagers

I have heard about someone getting quite excited recently about seeing a scarlet tanager in Turtle Mountain.  Scarlet tanagers, as the name implies are bright red with jet black wings and tail.  They are also known as black-winged red birds, and have been described as “red with a capital R” or “blindingly gorgeous.”  In size they are a little larger than a sparrow but smaller than a robin.  If you are familiar with eastern bluebirds, they are close in size.  

Robert Stewart in his Breeding Birds of North Dakota (1975) noted that scarlet tanagers were “fairly common” in the Pembina Hills and other wooded areas in Pembina County, as well as wooded areas along the Sheyenne River in Richland and Ransom County.  He also noted they are uncommon to rare and local in other areas of the state.  Nests or indications of nesting birds were observed both east and west of the Missouri River, although most were documented in and around the Red River Valley.  He described their habitat as rich, mature deciduous forest with American elm, green ash, bur oak, and boxelder.       

Scarlet tanagers prefer large tracts of mature forest.  And because they tend to stay high up in the trees where they are obstructed by all those leaves, they can be hard to spot. Their call can be variable but has been described as a “chirp, churr” or perhaps just a “churr.”

So, if you happen to hear that while walking in some rich woods, you might want to see if you can find the source of that song.  Hopefully, you will spot that scarlet songster!  

Scarlet tanager populations have declined in North America by around 14% from 1966-2014. Loss of habitat, particularly tropical deforestation, as well as habitat fragmentation are important factors.  As some of you know, cowbirds are well known for laying their eggs in another bird’s nest.  Cowbirds stay around the edges of forested areas, so forest fragmentation has resulted in considerably more nest parasitism by cowbirds.  

So, if you are out in some good woodland habitat, be on the lookout for this colorful and interesting bird.  Like that person that observed a scarlet tanager in Turtle Mountain recently, I suspect you will be excited as well. 

-Chuck Lura

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