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Western Tanager, Alan Burger
Photo © Alan Burger

Photo: Alan Burger
Breeding evidence - Western Tanager
Breeding evidence
Probability of observation - Western Tanager
Probability of observation
Elevation plot - Western Tanager
Elevation plot

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Western Tanager
Piranga ludoviciana
Landscape associations:

Click on plot to view table of mean abundance
Elevation range:
0 - 2192 m
Conserv. status:
Not at risk
Global importance
of B.C. population:
Number of squares
ConfirmedProbablePossiblePoint counts
242 471 1303 1249
Long-term BBS trends
RegionYearsTrend (conf. interv.) Reliab.
Brit. Col.1970 - 2012 1.1 (0.395 - 1.78)Medium
Canada1973 - 2012 1.23 (0.572 - 1.89)Medium

Mean abundance by region

Bird Conservation Regions [plot]
NW Interior ForestBoreal Taiga PlainsGreat BasinNorthern RockiesN. Pacific Rainforest
0.160.2 0.280.18 0.19
Ecoprovinces [plot]
N. Boreal Mountains Taiga Plains Boreal Plains Georgia Depression Sub-Boreal Interior
0.160.14 0.220.15 0.17
S. Interior Mountains Central Interior Southern Interior S. Alaska Mountains Coast & Mountains
0.190.17 0.3  0.24

Mean abundance by habitat [plot]

Boreal Altai Fescue AlpineBoreal White and Black SpruceBunchgrassCoastal Douglas-fir
Coastal Mountain-heather AlpineCoastal Western HemlockEngelmann Spruce -- Subalpine FirInterior Cedar -- Hemlock
Interior Douglas-firInterior Mountain-heather AlpineMontane SpruceMountain Hemlock
0.34 0.150.07
Ponderosa PineSpruce -- Willow -- BirchSub-Boreal Pine -- SpruceSub-Boreal Spruce

Characteristics and Range Formerly considered a true tanager in the family Thraupidae, recent genetic work has placed the Western Tanager within the cardinal-grosbeak (Cardinalidae) family (Klicka et al. 2007). The male's distinctive plumage includes a red face and head, which is notable because the pigment that causes this, rhodoxanthin, is derived from components of their diet, likely insects, unlike other Piranga tanagers (Hudon 1991). Its breeding range extends across much of western North America from the Boreal Forest south to Baja California. It is a medium-distance migrant, the winter range concentrated from southwestern Mexico to Costa Rica; small numbers winter in southern California (Hudon 1999).

Distribution, Abundance, and Habitat With a broad range across the entire province except Haida Gwaii, the overall pattern of distribution has changed little since The Birds of British Columbia was published in 2001, reflecting that it breeds wherever taller, coniferous or mixed forests are present, and it is more thinly distributed along the wet, outer coast.

The Probability of Observation model shows highest values in the valley systems of the interior and Coast Mountains, the Interior Plateau, Georgia Depression, and the northeast lowlands. Point counts refine this picture, showing highest abundance in the Southern Interior Ecoprovince (unchanged since Campbell et al. 2001), followed by the Coast and Mountains and Boreal Plains ecoprovinces.

Preferred broad habitats are river valleys below 1,250 m and within dry biogeoclimatic zones, particularly Interior Douglas-fir. Within these areas this species has a preference for open and edge habitat, such as open coniferous and mixed forests, riparian areas, and other forest types adjacent to natural and artificial clearings (Smith et al. 1997, Campbell et al. 2001, Stiles 1980). Overall, presence is more likely in older forests with taller canopy and less likely in forests with higher stand density (Schieck and Nietfeld 1995, Shy 1984).

Conservation and Recommendations Over recent decades populations have gone through remarkable swings, both positive and negative, however, current populations are slightly increased from those found 50 years ago (Sauer et al. 2014). Climate projections suggest that the extent of Interior Douglas-fir and Interior Cedar-Hemlock biogeoclimatic zones will increase over the next century (Hamann and Wang 2006, Flannigan and van Wagner 1990), which may benefit tanagers. Management of Douglas-fir (Psuedotsuga menziesii), Ponderosa Pine (Pinus ponderosa), and Lodgepole Pine (Pinus contorta) and associated forests may also impact Western Tanager populations due to the species close associations with these species (Hudon 1999).

Mike Boyd

Recommended citation: Boyd, M. 2015. Western Tanager in Davidson, P.J.A., R.J. Cannings, A.R. Couturier, D. Lepage, and C.M. Di Corrado (eds.). The Atlas of the Breeding Birds of British Columbia, 2008-2012. Bird Studies Canada. Delta, B.C. [14 Jul 2024]

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