Welcome to the Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Conservation Program
Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Conservation Program Balancing Resource Use and Conservation

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Summer Tanager

      (Piranga rubra)

Young Summer Tanager MoltingSummer Tanager PairSummer Tanager
  • DESCRIPTION
  • DISTRIBUTION
  • HABITAT
  • CONSERVATION
  • MULTIMEDIA

General Description

The summer tanager (Piranga rubra) is a large tanager, about 6.7 in (17 cm) long, with an average mass of nearly 1.1 oz (30 g). The summer tanager is most easily confused with the scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea) and hepatic tanager (P. flava). Adult males are distinguished from the scarlet tanager by paler plumage, with more rose or orange-red than intense scarlet, and red, rather than black, wings and tail. Female summer tanagers are usually brownish or orange-yellow, lack greenish cast to plumage, and have narrow, yet conspicuous, yellowish edging on the outside wing that make the wings appear to have the same color as the body. Some older female summer tanagers apparently become partly or even completely pigmented as in males, with plumage ranging from yellow to orange-red to red. Some females even show a patchy plumage with several shades of red scattered across body. Typical immature male summer tanagers have a distinctive spotted or splotched plumage with orange-red and red patches on an otherwise yellowish plumage. Summer tanagers are easily distinguished from the western tanager (P. ludoviciana) by a lack of white bars on their wings.

Legal Status

In California, the summer tanager is considered a Bird Species of Special Concern.

Taxonomy

The summer tanager (Piranga rubra) was formerly placed in the tanager family (Thraupidae).  It and other members of its genus are now classified in the cardinal family (Cardinalidae). The species’ plumage and vocalizations are similar to other members of the cardinal family.  Currently, two subspecies of summer tanager are recognized.

Reproduction

In Arizona, summer tanagers typically begin to arrive on their breeding grounds in mid-April to early May, with the earliest recorded arrival on 7 April. Males arrive first and aggressively establish territories by the end of April and beginning of May. Nest building has been recorded as early as the last week in April, with egg laying occurring by mid-May. Peak nesting activity occurs from mid-May to early July, continuing well into August. First broods fledge in mid- or late June, with most pairs re-nesting with second broods in late July.

Diet

Summer tanagers forage primarily for large insects as they move deliberately through the canopy of tall riparian trees, catching prey in flight or snatching insects from the foliage or branches. The midsummer diet on the lower Colorado River was mainly cicadas, bees and wasps, and grasshoppers, with a few spiders, beetles, flies, and bugs. During the late breeding season, migration, and winter, summer tanagers also consume fruit.

Threats

Removal of riparian forest is the most direct threat to the summer tanager. In addition, habitat degradation, through fragmentation and the lowering of water tables, compound the effects of clearing, cutting, and fires. Fragmentation of a once-continuous forest could result in a lack of necessary cooler habitats. Temperatures, even in the shade of remaining scattered cottonwoods, could rise above the critical threshold, killing some eggs or chicks. Unnatural water regimes, in combination with the invasion of tamarisk, are also a threat. Floods in 1983, 1984, and 1986 killed most remaining cottonwoods along the Lower Colorado River, and high soil salinity, prolonged inundation, and fire favored their replacement by tamarisk. In addition to tamarisk, proliferation of other exotic plants, such as giant reed and Russian olive, displaces suitable summer tanager habitat. The spread of giant reed(accelerated by flooding in 1993) on the coastal slope threatens habitat into which the summer tanager could spread. Fire is a serious threat to summer tanager habitat. Burning of riparian forest along the Colorado River favors tamarisk at the expense of native cottonwood. Cowbird parasitism has not been identified as a serious threat to the summer tanager in California, but the extent of this parasitism remains poorly studied, in part because the birds nest high in the canopy.

More Information

Additional information on this species, as well as source documentation, can be found in the species accounts located at this link (PDF). The Conceptual Ecological Model (CEM) can be found here (PDF). Technical Reports on this species can be found here.

Updated December 18, 2017

The summer tanager has been declining along edges of its range in most areas of eastern United States. The tanager formerly bred in central Iowa, southern Wisconsin, throughout northern Illinois, and central Indiana.  In the West, the tanager was formerly considered to be common in the lower Colorado River Valley.

Currently the summer tanager ranges as far east as Florida up to North Carolina and as far west as the eastern portion of California, including the lower Colorado River.

The summer tanager prefers structurally well-developed cottonwood-willow stands. Summer tanagers have bred in stands of exotic Athel tamarisk, and at higher elevations, honey mesquite and tamarisk. Tree height (at least 9 m) and canopy closure have been suggested to be the critical variables making habitat suitable for summer tanagers. Nests have been noted in tamarisk and mesquite at higher elevations farther east in Arizona, where the cooler temperatures mean that the shading qualities of the willows and cottonwoods are less critical to successful nesting. They attain their highest densities along perennial drainages where continuous woodlands of large Fremont cottonwood and Goodding’s willow exist. Summer tanagers breed in deciduous forests in eastern part of range, especially open woods and near gaps. In Southeast, they breed mainly in pine-oak forests, while in the West, they use riparian woodlands.

 

LCR MSCP Conservation Measures

The Habitat Conservation Plan provides conservation measures specific to each species. Listed below are the species specific conservation measures for the summer tanager. Click on the arrows to expand the table.

SUTA1—Create 602 acres of summer tanager habitat

Of the 5,940 acres of created cottonwood-willow, at least 602 acres will be designed and created to provide habitat for the species. Patches of created habitat will be designed and managed to support cottonwood-willow types I and II. The created habitat will be established in patches as large as possible. At a minimum, however, 4,050 acres of cottonwood-willow will be created in patches of at least 25 acres, and 1,890 acres will be created in patches of at least 10 acres. In addition to the spatial replacement of affected habitat, the quality of created habitat will be substantially greater than affected habitats. Patches of existing cottonwood willow in the LCR MSCP planning area typically include dense stands of saltcedar that support little vegetative diversity relative to the cottonwood-willow land cover that will be created as habitat. Created habitat will be dominated by native riparian trees (i.e., cottonwood and willow trees), support a tree structure corresponding to structural types I and II (i.e., over 50 percent of the trees are taller than 15 feet), support a diversity of plant species, and will be created to the greatest extent practicable in patch sizes optimal for supporting the species. Created habitat, thus, will approximate the condition of the native habitat of the species that was historically present along the LCR. The design and management criteria described in the conservation measures for the yellow-billed cuckoo (Section 5.7.14 in the HCP) will ensure that created cottonwood-willow stands in structural types I and II will also provide other habitat requirements for this species (e.g., habitat patch size, food requirements). In addition, created southwestern willow flycatcher habitat that supports cottonwood-willow types I and II could also provide habitat for this species.

MRM1—Conduct surveys and research to better identify covered and evaluation species habitat requirements

Conduct surveys and research, as appropriate, to collect information necessary to better define the species habitat requirements and to design and manage fully functioning created covered and evaluation species habitats. This conservation measure applies to those species for which comparable measures are not subsumed under species-specific conservation measures (Section 5.7 in the HCP). They are not applicable to species for which habitat would not be created under the LCR MSCP Conservation Plan, such as the desert tortoise, relict leopard frog, humpback chub, and threecorner milkvetch.

MRM2—Monitor and adaptively manage created covered and evaluation species habitats

Created species habitats will be managed to maintain their functions as species habitat over the term of the LCR MSCP. Created habitat will be monitored and adaptively managed over time to determine the types and frequency of management activities that may be required to maintain created cottonwood-willow, honey mesquite, marsh, and backwater land cover as habitat for covered species. This conservation measure applies to those species for which comparable measures are not subsumed under species-specific conservation measures (Section 5.7 in the HCP). They are not applicable to species for which habitat would not be created under the LCR MSCP Conservation Plan, such as the desert tortoise, relict leopard frog, humpback chub, and threecorner milkvetch.

MRM4—Conduct research to determine and address the effects of brown-headed cowbird nest parasitism on reproduction of covered species

Research will be undertaken to determine whether brown-headed cowbird nest parasitism is a substantial factor limiting the reproductive success of the southwestern willow flycatcher, vermilion flycatcher, Arizona Bell's vireo, Sonoran yellow warbler, and summer tanager in the LCR MSCP planning area. If so, studies will be implemented to identify effective and practical methods for controlling brown-headed cowbirds. If cowbirds are adversely affecting breeding success and effective control measures are developed, a program will be implemented to monitor the effects of cowbirds on nesting success in LCR MSCP–created habitats to determine the need for cowbird control and to implement cowbird control measures in locations where cowbird control is needed to improve reproductive success.

CMM1—Reduce risk of loss of created habitat to wildfire

Management of LCR MSCP conservation areas will include contributing to and integrating with local, state, and Federal agency fire management plans. Conservation areas will be designed to contain wildfire and facilitate rapid response to suppress fires (e.g., fire management plans will be an element of each conservation area management plan).

CMM2—Replace created habitat affected by wildfire

In the event of created-habitat degradation or loss as a result of wildfire, land management and habitat creation measures to support the reestablishment of native vegetation will be identified and implemented.

AMM1—To the extent practicable, avoid and minimize impacts of implementing the LCR MSCP on existing covered species habitats

To the extent practicable, establishment and management of LCR MSCP–created habitats will avoid removal of existing cottonwood-willow stands, honey mesquite bosques, marsh, and backwaters to avoid and minimize impacts on habitat they provide for covered species. Temporary disturbance of covered species habitats, however, may be associated with habitat creation and subsequent maintenance activities (e.g., controlled burning in marshes and removal of trees to maintain succession objectives). LCR MSCP conservation measures that could result in such temporary disturbances will, to the extent practicable, be designed and implemented to avoid or minimize the potential for disturbance. In addition to implementing AMM3 and AMM4 below, these measures could include conducting preconstruction surveys to determine if covered species are present and, if present, implementing habitat establishment and management activities during periods when the species would be least sensitive to those activities; or redesigning the activities to avoid the need to disturb sensitive habitat use areas; staging construction activities away from sensitive habitat use areas; and implementing BMPs to control erosion when implementing ground disturbing activities.

AMM3—To the extent practicable, avoid and minimize disturbance of covered bird species during the breeding season

To the extent practicable, to avoid and minimize potential impacts on covered bird species, vegetation management activities (e.g., periodic removal of emergent vegetation to maintain canals and drains) associated with implementation of covered activities and the LCR MSCP that could result in disturbance to covered bird species will not be implemented during the breeding season to prevent injury or mortality of eggs and young birds unable to avoid these activities. Table 5-9 in the HCP describes the breeding period for each of the covered species during which, to the extent practicable, vegetation management activities in each species' habitat will be avoided.

AMM5—Avoid impacts of operation, maintenance, and replacement of hydroelectric generation and transmission facilities on covered species in the LCR MSCP planning area

To the extent practicable, before implementing activities associated with OM&R of hydroelectric generation and transmission facilities, measures will be identified and implemented that are necessary to avoid take of covered species where such activities could otherwise result in take. These measures could include conducting surveys to determine if covered species are present and, if so, deferring the implementation of activities to avoid disturbance during the breeding season; redesigning the activities to avoid the need to disturb covered species habitat use areas; staging of equipment outside of covered species habitats; delineating the limits of vegetation control activities to ensure that only the vegetation that needs to be removed to maintain infrastructure is removed; stockpiling and disposing of removed vegetation in a manner that minimizes the risk of fire; and implementing BMPs to control erosion when implementing ground disturbing activities.

AMM6—Avoid or minimize impacts on covered species habitats during dredging, bank stabilization activities and other river management activities

To the extent practicable, before initiating activities involved with river maintenance projects, measures will be identified and implemented that avoid or minimize take of covered species where such activities could otherwise result in take. Such measures could include alternative methods to achieve project goals, timing of activities, pre-activity surveys, and minimizing the area of effect, including offsite direct and indirect effects (e.g., avoiding or minimizing the need to place dredge spoil and discharge lines in covered species habitats; placing dredge spoils in a manner that will not affect covered species habitats).


Research and Monitoring Activities

LCR MSCP conducts a variety of research and monitoring activities along the LCR encompassing both MSCP and non-MSCP species. For a complete list of all activities, please see the Research and Monitoring Activities web page.

 

This gallery includes photos of this species. If you require larger photos, please contact our webmaster Michelle Reilly at mreilly@usbr.gov.

Summer tanager at Beal Restoration Site, within Havasu National Wildlife Refuge, near Needles, CA - Photo by Reclamation Young summer tanager molting plumage - Photo by Reclamation Pair of color banded summer tanagers at Beal Restoration Site, within Havasu National Wildlife Refuge, near Needles, CA - Photo by Reclamation Adult summer tanager at Topock Marsh in Havasu National Wildlife Refuge, near Needles, CA - Photo by Reclamation Summer tanager at Havasu National Wildlife Refuge, near Needles, CA - Photo by Reclamation