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Blane Klemek column: Discovering the scarlet tanager

While recently enjoying an evening of fishing from my small boat on beautiful La Salle Lake of the La Salle Lake State Recreation Area, I was drawn to the scenic and steep north side of the lake's shoreline. Along this shore are numerous spots that provide good fish habitat in the otherwise exceedingly deep lake.

A calm evening, I could easily hear birds singing and calling from the adjacent forest as I cast my jig in hopes of catching a fish or two. I had the best of two worlds—the enjoyment of being on the water and observing aquatic animal life, while, at the same time, listening to and watching wild birds and other creatures within the forest.

A pair of curious loons swam nearby, a rock bass followed my jig, a common nighthawk zig-zagged its way across the lake, a large mouth bass swam beneath a submerged tree, and the familiar "chick-burr" call-note of an often heard (but much less seen) forest songbird emanated from the forest canopy.

Those of you familiar with the "chick-burr" birdcall already know "who" I'm referring to. Indeed, the call is from none other than the scarlet tanager.

Aside from the northern cardinal, red crossbill, and orchard oriole, no other bird in Minnesota is as brilliant red-colored as the scarlet tanager is. A medium sized songbird about seven inches in length with a wingspan of about a foot, scarlet tanagers are actually the smallest of the four species of tanagers that occur in North America. The other three tanagers include the hepatic, summer, and western. Breeding populations of these latter three species don't occur in Minnesota, although there are a handful of western tanagers that show up in our state from time to time.

I'll never forget the first time I observed a scarlet tanager. Now mind you, I'm red-green colorblind, so my seeing something red and picking it out quickly is a treat and no small feat!

I was a farm boy on one of my many summer walks after the milking chores were completed. There was nothing more to do than enjoy time alone and to see what I could see.

Catching sight of some type of bird flitting about within the hazel brush beneath the mature bur oak trees, the bird suddenly burst out of the shrubs and landed momentarily on a tree limb until it noticed me and quickly flew away. Though only observed for a couple of seconds, I was dazzled by the beauty of the bright red bird against the green backdrop. I distinctly remember, too, noticing the black wings and dark tail feathers as the bird flew and disappeared into the thickets.

The songs of scarlet tanagers are generally characterized as consisting of at least five distinct phrases and patterns, including sounding somewhat similar to the American robin. With notes more slurred and phrases hoarser than the songs of robins, the songs of scarlet tanagers are nonetheless very pleasant to the ear. And as already mentioned, the "chick-burr" calls are distinctive and easily remembered once heard.

It turns out that the scarlet tanager was one of several other birds considered for designation as Minnesota's official state bird. The other species included the common loon, American goldfinch, mourning dove, pileated woodpecker, and wood duck. As we all know, the common loon was officially adopted as our state bird.

I don't believe we could have made a bad decision with any of the choices for our state bird. The scarlet tanager is certainly worthy of the honor, in fact the bird, if it had been chosen, would have had the privilege of being the only tanager selected as an official state bird of any state in the nation. To compare, seven states chose the northern cardinal and six states selected the western meadowlark.

Right now scarlet tanagers are nesting throughout Minnesota's abundant forests and woodlands. As John J. Audubon once so eloquently wrote about the species' nesting habits:

"The construction of the nest of this richly clad species is nearly the same in all parts of the Union in which it breeds. It is frequently fixed on a branch crossing a road, or an opening of some description, or, if in the woods, in some partially cleared space. It is usually placed low on a horizontal branch. It is composed externally of dried stalks of weeds, and is finished within with fine grass, arranged in a slovenly manner. It is so insecurely fastened to the branch that it may be shaken off by striking the latter smartly."

Female scarlet tanagers, while not as brightly plumaged as their male counterparts, are nevertheless striking birds in their own right. Sporting bright green coloration from crown to rump, along with a rich yellow throat, and black scapulars and wings, female scarlet tanagers could easily be misidentified as a different species altogether.

Females will lay four to six light-blue eggs and both her and her mate will share incubation duties for about two weeks. The youngsters, completely helpless just as all songbirds are upon hatching, are reared by their parents until they fledge. Once the chicks are able to fly, they stay with their parents, learning as they mature, and will eventually follow them and other tanagers on the annual fall migration to South America.

For reasons common to all birds that annually migrate to Minnesota for breeding and nesting, scarlet tanagers are attracted to the Land of 10,000 Lakes because of the plentitude of insects to feed on and forests to nest in. And in so doing, they provide us opportunities for rare glimpses of red birds as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.