Originally printed in the May 28, 2003 edition of the Illinois Valley News
On Mother’s Day, my wife and I had a very interesting experience. We were sitting in the living room digesting the wonderful meal that Elaine had made for her mother and discussing very important topics. We heard a loud crash, like that usually made when a bird flies into a window. By the way, my theory for why this happens is that the bird is approaching the window at an angle. In the reflection the bird sees more sky, trees or shrubs and it seems a safe place to fly.
Naturally we rushed outside to see what had happened and saw one of the most brightly colored birds that we had ever seen. A brilliant red head, bright yellow breast and belly feathers, with white striped black wings is the summer plumage for a male Western Tanager. It was stunned, the neck looked alright, but one wing seemed out of place or broken. Elaine immediately thought of Dodie Vandermark in Selma, who has had some success helping injured animals. I picked up the bird and it made a loud squawky sound which attracted a Scrub Jay. He wanted to help out in one way or another so I couldn’t put it back on the ground. We placed it in a small box and headed for Selma. Dodie was ready with a bird cage inside her truck, so her cats would not be able to assist. By that time , the bird was back to normal and flew around inside the truck. It was finally captured, returned to the box, returned to Cave Junction, and returned to the trees near our house, where it flew off very quickly. A few days later I had a brief glimpse of a red and yellow bird in the trees and I’m hoping its life is back to normal.
Female tanagers are less noticeable, as is common with most female birds, with olive green back and paler yellow on the breast and belly area. Tanagers are mainly insect eating birds, and will occasionally eat seeds and berries but are seldom seen at a bird feeding station. They are summer residents only and usually nest in dense evergreen trees. This makes them difficult to see or study so not a lot is known of their habits.
Tanagers are in the same family as sparrows, finches, and grosbeaks. and have the scientific name Piranga ludoyiciana. “Piranga” is the Latin name for tanagers, while “ludoviciana” is Latin for Louisiana. This explains why some bird books use the name Louisiana Tanager, but it is not found there, only in the western states. The explanation has to do with Alexander Wilson, who made the first scientific description and classification in 1811.
Wilson was a self taught ornithologist from Scotland, who tried to make a living selling books of bird pictures which he had painted. When the Lewis and Clark bird specimens arrived in the East, most of them ended up in the Peale Museum in Philadelphia, and Wilson made some of the original descriptions. The Western Tanager specimen had been collected on the Clearwater River in Idaho while the expedition waited for the snow to melt in the Bitterroot Mountains to enable them to cross over on their way home. Wilson called the bird the Louisiana Tanager because the expedition was exploring the Louisiana Territory, which by the way, did not include Idaho. In one of Wilson’s sales trip he stopped in Louisville Kentucky and showed a storekeeper his drawings. This motivated the storekeeper, who also painted birds, to have his own works published because, in his opinion, his own paintings were better than Wilson’s. John James Audubon thus entered the world of science and art.