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The following is an article written by star volunteer / researcher Terri Gallion. It is reprinted with permission. All rights remain with the Kern River Research Center, no permission is granted or implied for duplication in any form. Please contact the research center about this article.

Fieldnotes: Winter 1994 Vol 3 No. 1


by Terri Gallion, Research Assistant

"The sight of a male Coopers a vision of ravishing redness and one's first impulse is to admonish the vision for its rashness. One day in Arizona the writer spent an hour watching a waterhole .... Among the doughty visitors came this .symphony in red, a superb old male Cooper Tanager. As he drank, or rather, sipped,.., he was utterly unconscious either of my frank admiration or of lurking dangers. Believe me, what with image and reflection, that portion of the pool wherein Piranga drank was illuminated for a season." William Dawson (1923) "The Birds of California".

Despite the fact that the Summer Tanager is a spectacularly colored bird, and is locally common in the eastern United States, it's natural history is poorly known. The male Summer Tanager is an unforgettable brilliant neon red while the female is yellow. The Summer Tanager is one of only four tanager species, along with Western, Hepatic and Scarlet Tanagers, that regularly breed in the United States and winter in the tropics. The remaining 238 tanager species breed in Central and South America. The population of Summer Tanagers on the Kern River is the most northern and western breeding population in California.

There are two subspecies of Summer Tanager, the Eastern Summer Tanager (Piranga rubra rubra) and the Cooper's Summer Tanager (Piranga rubra cooperi). Cooper's Summer Tanager is a brighter and larger bird, with a proportionately larger bill than its eastern counterpart. The eastern subspecies breeds in habitats ranging from pine to oak woodlands and at a wide range of elevations. In the West, Summer Tanagers are restricted to riparian woodlands and to lower elevations. Destruction and fragmentation of this habitat has imperiled many of our migratory birds including the Summer Tanager.

Cooper's Summer Tanager breeds as far east as western Texas, north to southern Nevada and south into Mexico. Historically, the Cooper's Summer Tanager in California was known only from the Colorado River and as a rare vagrant on the coast of California (Grinnell and Miller, 1944, "Distribution of Birds of California"). The population of tanagers on the South Fork Kern River was not detected by Joseph Grinnell of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology during his survey here in 1911. Today this is the largest population of Summer Tanagers in California. This range expansion to the northwest may be related to extensive destruction of habitat along the Colorado River over the past 60 years.

When I looked in Ehrlich's "Birders Handbook" for basic life history information, I learned I was dealing with a mystery bird. They have been studied so little that even the most basic life history information has never been recorded. Included among the things not known are their mating behavior, nest shape and structure, foraging methods, which sex incubates, and fledging age.
In 1990, I spent two weeks observing the nesting behavior of Summer Tanagers on the Kern River Preserve. I knew that even the most basic observations that I made would be significant. Breeding pairs were easy to find because they were quite vocal. The male sang often and both the male and female frequently gave PIT-TI-TUCK contact calls. I listened for a singing male, followed him until I saw a female, then watched until one or both approached a nest. If the pair had an active nest, only a short time was required before they revealed its location. I became fascinated with their behavior and, with help, was able to find five nests in almost as many days. I observed one of the nests from hatching until a few days before fledging.

The male moved in a circuit within his territory consisting of a dozen or more singing perches. He perched on each in turn and sang for several minutes. The male and female interacted frequently with calls and diving and chasing behavior when off the nest. While the female was incubating there were numerous food exchanges with the female begging like a fledgling. These behaviors revealed something of the tanager's personality and showed an intimacy within the pair that I had not seen in other species.

From my initial findings it seems that the tanagers on the South Fork are using mature trees, mostly Fremont cottonwoods, for both nesting and foraging. They nested high in the trees (10 -17 m), used the mid-canopy for foraging and singing, and frequently foraged near the ground (1-4 m). Perhaps most interesting was the apparent specific aggression they presented to Brown-headed Cowbirds. On 26 occasions, I saw pairs of tanagers attack and aggressively drive off cowbirds. Almost all these attacks were directed toward female cowbirds. Could this aggression have developed as a method to avoid parasitism?

Terri continues to study Summer Tanagers in the vicinity of the Kern River.

NOTE: the KRRC was disbanded and reformed as the Southern Sierra Research Station

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About Audubon Kern River Preserve

The Kern River Preserve is managed by Audubon California for the preservation of one of California’s largest contiguous cottonwood-willow riparian forests and the wildlife it supports.

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