Piranga olivacea

Status:  Uncommon regular spring migrant east and east-central, rare casual west-central and west. Uncommon regular breeder east, rare north. Uncommon regular fall migrant east and east-central, rare casual west-central and west.

Documentation:  Specimen: UNSM ZM11098, 20 Jun 1907 Lancaster Co.

Taxonomy: No subspecies are recognized (Pyle 1997).

Short (1961) and Ford (1959) raised the possibility that Scarlet Tanager might occur far enough west in the Niobrara River Valley to come into contact and hybridize with Western Tanager. Citing a hybrid specimen between the two species (Tordoff 1950, Mowbray 2020), and noting that an individual seen near Chadron, Dawes Co in late Jun 1955 may have been a hybrid, Short (1961) suggested that the Niobrara River Valley was the best possibility for such contact on the Great Plains.  However, neither Short nor Ford could find either species between Chadron, Dawes Co and Valentine, Cherry Co; Western Tanager has not been reported between the Pine Ridge and eastern Cherry Co in summer since.

Hybridization with Summer Tanager (P. rubra) is discussed under that species.

First year males are sometimes more orange than red; this is within the range of normal variation and does not elevate such birds to the status of “variant” (Wright 2014); one such bird, reported as a variant, was Platte River SP, Cass Co 29 May 2016.

Spring:  Apr 25, 26, 26<<<>>> May 30, 31, Jun 1

Late dates above are away from the known breeding range. Arrival is in late Apr, although there are reports 14 Apr 2007 Fontenelle Forest, Sarpy Co, a male at a feeder 15 Apr 2002 Douglas Co, 18 Apr 1991 Douglas-Sarpy Cos, 18 Apr 2015 Lancaster Co, 20 Apr 1943 Jefferson Co, and 22 Apr 2009 Fontenelle Forest.

Rosche (1982) listed this species as a “casual spring transient” in the northwest, citing these records: 9 May 1977 Chadron, Dawes Co, 29 May 1976 Box Butte Reservoir, Dawes Co, and 31 May 1980 Sioux Co. A fourth record is of a male that hit a window in Scottsbluff, Scotts Buff Co 28 May 1982, recovered at a local veterinarian’s office overnight and was realeased the next day (Cortelyou 1982). One was in Scotts Bluff Co 1 Jun 2019.

  • High counts:  9 at Indian Cave SP, Nemaha and Richardson Cos 12 May 2004, 8 there 14 May 2006, 8 at Fontenelle Forest 15 May 2012, and 8 at Platte River SP, Cass Co 17 May 2018.

Summer: Scarlet Tanager breeds most commonly in deciduous forests in the Missouri River Valley, in lower numbers in the Niobrara River Valley west to western Brown and Keya Paha Cos, and in small numbers in Platte River Valley floodplain forest west to Dodge Co.

Breeding occurs throughout the Missouri River Valley, where there are breeding and summer reports for most river valley counties. Mollhoff (2016) showed confirmed breeding in Seward Co during the period 2006-2011.There are additional breeding season reports from Seward Co 16 Jul 2008, and Butler Co reports 20 Jun 2013 and 3 Jul 2014, suggesting small numbers may breed in the oak woodlands associated with the upper Oak Creek drainage.

Along the Niobrara River Valley breeding probably occurs west to the Niobrara Valley Preserve in western Brown Co, where Brogie and Mossman (1983) considered it uncommon and found a nest with young there 22 June 1982. There have been very few summer reports along the Niobrara River Valley west of Brown and Keya Paha Cos since Ford (1959) and Short (1961) found birds west to the Valentine area; however, reports may be increasing. A singing male, possibly a migrant, was at Fort Niobrara NWR 17 May 2015, singles were at the Valentine City Park 3 May 2016 and east of Valentine in Cherry Co 19 Jul 1995, a singing male was east of Smith Falls SP in Cherry Co 20 Jun 2015 and another was in the same area 4 Jun 2018.

Early Jun reports from Thomas and Logan Cos in the Loup drainage are probably late spring migrants, although it reportedly nested at NNF Bessey, Thomas Co until 1958 (Bray 1994), and Mollhoff (2001) shows a “probable” breeding record along the Middle Loup River on the Custer and Valley Cos line.

Breeding apparently occurs in the Platte River Valley, although the current western extent is uncertain. There is an old nesting record for York Co prior to 1897, reported by Tout (Jorgensen 2012). In the western Platte River Valley, a nest was found with adults nearby in Lincoln Co 12 Jun 1938 (Tout 1947). Recent breeding reports, however, extend only to Dodge Co, where it summers regularly; one was singing in Nance Co 18 Jul 2013 and another was there 8 Sep 2012.

In the area south of the Platte River and west to Adams and Webster Cos there are few summer reports: 6 Jun 1966 Gage Co, 7 Jun 1963 Jefferson Co, 12 Jun 2001 Gage Co, 13 Jun 2017 Kearney, Buffalo Co, 15 Jun 1947 Adams Co, 15 Jun 1954 Gage Co, 15 Jun 1970 Lancaster Co (Cink 1971), 18 Jun 2000 Lancaster Co, 19 Jun 1975 Clay Co, 1 Jul 1976 Lancaster Co, and 2 Jul 1991 Richardson Co.  Cink (1971) stated that “apparently there are no breeding records for Lancaster County.”

Reports in the west are few during breeding season; there is, however, a report of a singing male “on territory” at Gilbert-Baker RA, Sioux Co 7-9 Jun 1991 (Korpi 1991), and additional undocumented reports 9 Jun 1981 Garden Co and 28 Jun 1973 Sioux Co. An adult male was banded at Lake Ogallala, Keith Co 11 Jul 1992 (Brown et al 1996).

  • Breeding phenology:
    Nest building: 27 May
    Eggs: 30 May-17 Jun
    Nestlings: 22 Jun
    Fledglings: 12 Jun-7 Sep

Fall:  summer <<<>>> Oct 10, 10, 11

There are a number of reports mid-late Jul into Aug away from known breeding areas which are probably early migrants. Immature birds disperse from their natal site within weeks (Mowbray 2020) and fledglings have been reported in Nebraska as early as 12 Jun (see Breeding Phenology), which would allow time for dispersal from the breeding area. Reports that fit this schedule are 17 Jul 2012 western Custer Co, 24 Jul 1997 Stanton Co, 26 Jul 2013 Seward Co, 28 Jul 2020 Thayer Co, 31 Jul 1976 Lancaster Co, and 13 Aug 2015 Phelps Co.

Later reports away from the known breeding range are few: 12 Sep 1979 Boone Co, 15-16 Sep 1959 Lincoln Co, and 24 Sep 1994 Sheridan Co (Silcock and Rosche 1994), the only fall Panhandle report, two females at Johnson Reservoir, Gosper Co 10 Nov 1996, and a very late female at Forest Lawn Cemetery, Omaha 20 Nov 2010.

Departure is in early Oct.

  • High counts:  5 at Fontenelle Forest 4 Sep 2004.


NNF: Nebraska National Forest
NWR: National Wildlife Refuge
RA: Recreation Area
SP: State Park
UNSM: University of Nebraska State Museum

Literature Cited

Bray, T.E., B.K. Padelford, and W.R. Silcock. 1986. The birds of Nebraska: A critically evaluated list. Published by the authors, Bellevue, Nebraska, USA.

Brogie, M.A., and M.J. Mossman. 1983. Spring and summer birds of the Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska: An annotated checklist. NBR 51: 44-51.

Brown, C.R., M.B. Brown, P.A. Johnsgard, J. Kren, and W.C. Scharf. 1996. Birds of the Cedar Point Biological Station area, Keith and Garden Counties, Nebraska: Seasonal occurrence and breeding data. Transactions of the Nebraska Academy of Sciences 23: 91-108.

Cink, C.L. 1971. Some interesting summer bird records for Lancaster County in 1970. NBR 39: 58-59.

Cortelyou, R.G. 1982. 1982 (Fifty-second) Spring Occurrence Report. NBR 50: 51-67.

Ford, N.L. 1959. Notes on summer birds of western Nebraska. NBR 27: 6-12.

Jorgensen, J.G. 2012.  Birds of the Rainwater Basin, Nebraska.  Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.

Korpi, R.T. 1991. Spring 1991 Occurrence Report. NBR 59: 63-98.

Ludlow, C.S. 1935. A quarter-century of bird migration records at Red Cloud, Nebraska. NBR 3: 3-25.

Mollhoff, W.J. 2001. The Nebraska Breeding Bird Atlas 1984-1989. Nebraska Ornithologists’ Union Occasional Papers No. 7. Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.

Mollhoff, W.J. 2016. The Second Nebraska Breeding Bird Atlas. Bull. Univ. Nebraska State Museum Vol 29. University of Nebraska State Museum, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.

Mowbray, T.B. 2020. Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

Pyle, P. 1997. Identification Guide to North American Birds. Part I, Columbidae to Ploceidae. Slate Creek Press, Bolinas, California, USA.

Rosche, R.C. 1982. Birds of northwestern Nebraska and southwestern South Dakota, an annotated checklist. Cottonwood Press, Crawford, Nebraska, USA.

Short, L.L., Jr. 1961. Notes on bird distribution in the central Plains. NBR 29: 2-22.

Silcock, W.R., and R.C. Rosche. 1994. Fall Field Report, August-November 1994. NBR 62: 126-149.

Tordoff, H.B. 1950. A hybrid tanager from Minnesota. Wilson Bulletin 62: 3-4.

Tout, W. 1947. Lincoln County birds. Published by the author, North Platte, Nebraska, USA.

Wright, R. 2014. Birding New Jersey and the World; blog 15 May 2014.

Recommended Citation

Silcock, W.R., and J.G. Jorgensen.  2021.  Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea). In Birds of Nebraska — Online.

Birds of Nebraska – Online

Updated 18 Jan 2021