A friend sent me a photo of a bird this week that appeared in his back yard.The bird’s many different colors made identification puzzling. He was familiar with our smaller male Painted Buntings which have a gaudy array of red, blue and green colors, but this bird was robin-sized and featured yellow, green, orange, red, and buff in its plumage. The bird was a young male Summer Tanager going through its first molt. When he completes his first molt he will have a nice red suit. The male tanagers of the three of North American species all have various shades of red in their plumage.
In the tropics, tanagers have an astounding palate of colors including blue, yellow, orange, red and lavender, often with a mix of colors on each species. Our local red tanager in the summer is named for the season, Summer Tanager. To the east is the beautiful Scarlet Tanager with its black wings. To the west, is the Hepatic Tanager with its brick red plumage. The females of all three tanager species have no red and vary with shades of yellow, green and buffy brown.
The first-year male Summer Tanagers waits until he has returned to his North American breeding grounds before completing his first molting cycle. Normally male birds not in their adult plumage are unlikely to pair up for breeding purposes. Bald Eagles do not change into their adult plumage until their fifth year, when they are sexually mature enough to mate. These delays are part of nature’s scheme to insure that birds are ready to be successful breeders. Male orioles do not get their adult plumages until their second year much like the tanagers.
Juvenile and immature male birds generally look like their mothers until that first spring molt. I have noticed that male dragonflies also have the same coloration as their mothers, before they change to their adult male colors. Dragonflies have a very short life span, so the color change takes place at a much more accelerated pace than that of birds molting into their breeding colors. The time span for this change in dragonfly colors occurs in a week or two compared to more than a year for birds’ changes.
Many of the breeding birds in the Hill Country have raised their first brood this spring, or they are in the final week of fledging their youngsters. Among the young birds that fledge in the late spring might be a bird with some gene abnormalities, such as its having partial albino traits. It might have a head, wings, or a tail with whitish plumages. Pure albinos are relatively rare and do not have long life expectancies. They have poor genes which create health problems, or their unusual colors allow hawks to catch them more easily because the hawks can fixate on the fleeing bird.
Many bird species go into molting after the breeding season is concluded. Many of the colorful birds will lose their sharp colors and streaking and blend into plumages similar to those of the females. At this point the males and females have similar plumages to blend into a flock. If a hawk visually locks onto a bird with a plumage that stands out in the flock, the predator has a higher success rate of capture. This thought reminds of the old adage that there is more safety in large numbers.
One of the most fascinating things about nature is that what you observe always fits into a broader scheme of relationships or results. Everything seems to have reason or purpose, and all of these reasons and purposes seem to be connected. The reason the young Summer Tanager is displaying a hodge-podge plumage is to signal potential mates that he is not ready to participate in the breeding process. Some birders may think that it is nature’s way to play tricks on them. Nature seems to have many schemes to confuse birders; an unusual gaudy plumage is just one of them.