Resident in Central America and Mexico, the Hepatic Tanager nests in parts of the southwestern U.S. but migrates south for the winter. South American populations are also migratory. Hepatic Tanagers are often seen in small groups during migration, and often follow river valleys.
Hepatic Tanagers are very territorial, and are thought to breed at age one. There are a few records of nest parasitism by cowbirds, though it is not known how often it occurs or what effect it has. Very few Hepatic Tanagers have ever been banded, so little information is available on movements, mortality, or lifespan.
Adult males in full adult plumage are brick red with a gray cheek.
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Description of the Hepatic Tanager
The Hepatic Tanager has a gray cheek patch, and its flanks are somewhat grayish in contrast to brighter underparts. It has a thick, dark bill. Reddish above and below. After year two, adult plumage maintaned year round. Red color variable. Length: 8 in. Wingspan: 13 in.
Brownish gray above and yellowish below.
Female tanages can be mistaken for female orioles. Tanagers have heavier bills, all but Western Tanager lack wing bars.
Seasonal change in appearance
Similar to adult females but heavily streaked. Males achieve full adult plumage by molt after 2nd summer.
Oak and pine mountain forests.
Insects and berries.
Forages slowly in trees.
Breeds in the southwestern U.S. and is resident in Mexico, Central America, and South America.
Recent genetic work suggests that there may be three species of what is now called Hepatic Tanager making up northern, central, and southern populations.
Much basic information about the biology of Hepatic Tanagers is unknown.
The song resembles that of the American Robin.
Summer Tanagers have paler bills, lack the gray cheek mark.
Female Western Tanager
Female Western Tanager has wing bars.
The nest is a cup of plant materials placed in the fork of a branch.
Color: Bluish-green with darker markings.
Incubation and fledging:
– Young hatch at about 13 days.
– Young fledge (leave the nest) at an unknown age and likely remain with the adults for some time.
Bent Life History of the Hepatic Tanager
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Hepatic Tanager – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
Bangs Eastern Hepatic Tanager
PIRANGA FLAVA DEXTRAHABITS
Outram Bangs (1907) described this eastern race as: “Similar to true P. hepatica, but smaller; the adult male much more richly colored; back much redder, less grayish; pileum darker, more intense red: dull scarlet: vermilion; under parts, darker, deeper red: deep orange: vermilion (flame-scarlet in true P. hepatica), Adult female darker in color throughout with the back decidedly less grayish.”
The range of this race extends from southwestern New Mexico and western Texas through eastern Mexico to Guatemala .
Nothing seems to have been published on the habits of this race, but we have no reason to suppose that they differ materially from those of the better known western form.
The eastern hepatic tanager breeds from the mountains east of the Continental Divide from north-central New Mexico (Willis, Mesa Yegua), through western Texas (Guadalupe, Davis, and Chisos Mountains), Nuevo Leon (Cerro de la Silla), Tamaulipas (Realito), and Puebla (Huauchinango) to central Veracruz (Las Vigas, Jalapa, Jico) eastern Qaxaca, and Chiapas (San Cristobal 28 miles eastsoutheast of Comitn). It winters from central Nuevo Leon (Mesa del Chipinque) and northern Tamaulipas (Matamoros) south to western Guatemala (Chanquejelve, Momostenango, Chichicastenango), and is casual in southern Texas (Flour Bluff).
Western Hepatic Tanager
PIRANGA FLAVA HEPATICA Swainson
Two races of this species are now currently recognized as occurring north of Mexico, and at least two others have been described and named. For a full discussion of the claims of these races for recognition and their ranges, the reader is referred to a paper on the subject by Sutton and Phillips (1942), based on the study of a large series of specimens. The subject is too complicated to be discussed here. This western race is the form that breeds in Arizona, in parts of north central New Mexico, and in western Mexico .
Dr. Coues (1878) gives the following account of the introduction of this species to our fauna:
During Capt. L. Sitgreaves’s expedition down the Zuni and Colorado Rivers * * * Dr. S. W. Woodhouse observed this beautiful Tanager in the San Francisco Mountains, and secured a full-plumaged male, adding to the then recognized fauna of the United States a species long before described by Mr. Swainson as a bird of Mexico. In 1858, Baird recorded a second specimen from Fort Thorn, New Mexico; and, in 1866, I wrote of the bird as a summer resident in the vicinity of Fort Whipple, Arizona, where it arrives during the latter part of April.* * *
Meantime, however, in 1873, Mr. Henshaw had been busy with birds in Arizona, and had taken a female specimen at Camp Apache, Arizona. * * * There this Tanager was not rare; perhaps half a dozen individuals were seen in the course of one afternoon, in a grove of oaks that skirted some pine woods.
In 1922, we found hepatic tanagers fairly common in the Huachuca Mountains, in Arizona, nesting in the tall yellow pines in the upper parts of the canyons, above 5,000 feet and near the lower limit of the heavy pine timber.
In the Chiricahua Mountains, Ariz., they were seen mostly in the pines, but sometimes in neighboring oaks.
Harry S. Swarth (1904) says of its status in the Huachuca Mountains: “A fairly common summer resident, generally distributed over the mountains during migration, but in the breeding season restricted more to the canyons between 5,000 and 7,500 feet. In 1902 the first arrival was noted on April 11th, and the following year on April 16th; about the middle of May they were quite abundant in the higher pine regions, going in flocks of eight or ten, feeding in the tree tops and but seldom descending to the ground.”
Nesting: On May 26, 1922, we collected a set of three eggs and a pretty nest of the hepatic tanager in Stoddard Canyon, a branch of Ramsey Canyon at about 7,000 feet, in the Huachuca Mountains. The nest was about 50 feet from the ground and about 12 feet out from the trunk, in a fork near the end of a horizontal branch of a tall yellow pine. It was suspended by its edges between the two prongs of the fork. It was made of green grass, green and gray weed stems, flower stalks and blossoms, and was neatly lined with finer dry and green grasses. My companion Frank C. Willard made a difficult climb with the use of ropes to secure it; he cut off the branch, near the nest, which was photographed near the ground. In my collection is another set of four eggs, taken by Virgil W. Owen in the same region on May 14, 1907; the nest was 18 feet up and 12 feet out near the end of a pine limb.
After I left Arizona, Frank C. Willard collected a nest and two eggs of the hepatic tanager in Miller Canyon, on June 15, 1922. The nest was placed at the tip of a branch of a large sycamore 25 feet above ground.
In the Thayer collection is a set, taken by 0. W. Howard, that was found 19 feet from the ground in an upright fork of a madrofia.
Eggs: Four eggs usually make up a full set for the hepatic tanager, but often only three are laid and rarely as many as five. These are usually ovate in shape and are moderately glossy. William George F. Harris has contributed the following description of the colors: The ground color may be “pale Nile blue,” “Etain blue,” “pale Niagara green,” or “bluish glaucous.” The eggs are speckled or spotted with “bay,” “chestnut,” “chestnut-brown,” “carob brown, or “liver brown.” The markings, usually in the form of fine speckling or small spots, are generally well distributed over the entire egg, but with concentration toward the large end, where frequently they form a wreath. Some eggs show undertones of “pale neutral gray,” but these markings are seldom prominent and often indistinct. In general, the eggs of this species seem to show a tendency to be less heavily or boldly marked than those of either the western tanager or the summer tanager.
The measurements of 50 eggs average 24.5 by 17.7 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 26.8 by 18.5, 25.3 by 18.9, 21.5 by 16.9, and 22.0 by 16.6 millimeters.
Young: Nothing seems to be known about the period of incubation nor about the development and care of the young .
Plumages: Ridgway (1902) describes the nestling (juvenal) plumage as: “Conspicuously streaked beneath with dusky on a pale huffy ground, more indistinctly streaked above on a grayish olive ground; middle and greater wing-coverts margined terminally with buff; otherwise like adult female.”
The sexes are alike in juvenal plumage and in the first winter plumage.
The first winter plumage is acquired by a partial postnuptial molt, m July and August, which involves the contour feathers and the wing coverts, but not the rest of the wings nor the tail. After this molt, young birds of both sexes are essentially like the adult female, light olive green above, more yellowish on the crown, with grayish cheeks, and yellow beneath. This plumage is apparently worn through the first breeding season with little change, except that some young males may acquire a few red or orange feathers on the head and throat.
The fully adult plumage is acquired in late summer at the first postnuptial molt, which is complete and is practically the only seasonal molt of any consequence. In the fall and winter male the back and scapulars are more strongly tinged with brownish gray than in spring birds, but wear produces a clearer color effect before the nuptial season. There is much individual variation in the seasonal changes of the males, some retaining a few vestiges of immaturity during their second winter. After the postjuvenal molt the female produces no color changes of consequence, except that some old females acquire orange feathers on the throat and forehead.
Food: In a grove of oaks, near Camp Apache, according to Henshaw (1875), “they appeared to be feeding upon insects, which they gleaned from among the foliage and smaller branches of the oaks.” He also saw them moving “slowly about in the tops of the pines searching for insects. At this season [July], they capture these generally while at rest, but occasionally sally forth and take them in mid-air.”
Mrs. Bailey (1928) says: “Those seen by Major Goldman in the Burro Mountains the middle of September were feeding on wild grapes and wild cherries in a northeast slope canyon at 6,500 feet.”
Behavior: Like all tanagers, the hepatic tanagers are rather slow and deliberate in their movements. We did not find them particularly shy and were able to observe them at their nest building. Henshaw (1875), however, found them so “excessively shy” that he had difficulty in getting within gunshot of them. On July 21, “young, just from the nest, were taken. The old birds manifested much affection and solicitude for their progeny, flying down on the low branches, and, after venting their anger in harsh notes, returned to the side of their young and led them away to a place of safety.”
Voice: Henshaw (1875) says: “With the exception of the call notes, used by both sexes, and which resemble the syllables chuck, chuck, several times repeated, they were perfectly silent, and neither here nor elsewhere did I ever hear any song.” But Frank Stephens wrote William Brewster (1881) that “the song is loud and clear, but short.”
Enemies: Frank C. Willard told me that he found an egg of the bronzed cowbird in a nest of an hepatic tanager. This is probably a rare occurrence, for I can find no such report by anyone else.
Winter: The winter range of this form of the hepatic tanager seems to lie in western Mexico, from Sonora southward. Col. A. J. Grayson wrote to George N. Lawrence (1874): “I discovered this species to be quite frequent in the Sierra Madre Mountains, on their western slope between Mazatlan and Durango in December, but I have never met with it in the tierras calientes proper. It seems to be a mountain species.
Range: Arizona to western Mexico .
Breeding Range: The Western hepatic tanager breeds from northwestern and central Arizona (Hualpai Mountains, Bill Williams Mountain, Flagstaff) and southwestern New Mexico (Silver City, Head of Rio Mimbres); south through the highlands of Mexico west of the Sierra Madre del Oriente at least to Michoacn (Cerro del Estribo) and Guerrero (Omilteme); west to western Chihuahua (Jesus Maria, Pinos Altos); eastern Sonora, and Gaxaca (25 miles northeast of Oaxaca).
Winter Range: Winters from southeastern Arizona (Patagonia) and southern coastal Sonora (San Jose de Guaymas) south to limits of breeding range and into coastal and lowland areas .
Migration: The data deal with the species as a whole. Early dates of spring arrival are: Texas: Brewster County, April 28; Rockport, May 5. New Mexico: Silver City, May 10. Arizona: Tucson area, April 4 (median of 6 years, April 27) ; Beaverdam, May 6 .
Late dates of fall departure are: Arizona: Huachuca Mountains, October 25; Prescott, October 2. New Mexico: Burro Mountains, Grant County, September 16. Texas: Davis Mountains, October 6.
Egg dates: Arizona: 16 records, May 21 to July 10; 8 records, June 1 to June 19.
New Mexico: 1 record, June 29.