I grew up in the central area of Costa Rica. And birds were part of our lives, like big trees and play grounds. We never thought that they were special or that having all sorts of birds with all sorts of extravangant colors, shapes and voices was somehow different from what kids, all over the World are used to see.
I remember reading Tarzan (Edgar Rice Burroughs book) and wanting to go to Africa to see an actual jungle… Not realizing I had one on the back patio of my father’s dairy farm.
Once when I was doing my training as a tour guide, back in the 80’s a tourist asked me where could she see a quetzal. I told her about this place (Savegre Valley)… but then I added: “They are as common there as gray blue tanagers”. She looked at me with a smile and said softly “I have never seen a gray blue tanager”. And that day I realized it. Costa Rica is privileged. In many areas of the World people is not used to have dozens of different species of hummingbirds in their back yard or they ave never seen as any colorful birds as we see here in one day… throughout their whole lives.
Some of the most colorful and common in the country are the tanagers. There are over two hundred species of colorful tanagers found from Canada all the way to central Argentina. In Costa Rica we have over fifty species of tanagers.
Now… what exactly is a tanager?
I found this on Birds of the World:
“These aren’t your father’s Tanagers any more.
The Thraupidae page that was here in 2000 began: “No one is quite sure what makes a ‘tanager’ right now, but as a Supreme Court justice once said about pornography: ‘I may not be able to define it, but I know it when I see it.’ Tanagers may be hard to define, but usually you know one when you see one. They are just drop-dead gorgeous birds of the Neotropics.”
Well . . . wrong. Sort-of. Some of the “drop-dead gorgeous birds” in the Neotropics are Tanagers, including those in the speciose genus Tangara, like Silver-throated Tanager (Above). And a good many are traditional tanagers, such as White-lined Tanager (Below).”
But a whole lot of the birds that appear genetically to be tanagers go by different names. The full story may surprise you. It is based on genetic evidence published within the decade. [The most recent information is in Burns et al. (2014). That has not yet been widely incorporated into this page. An update is needed.]
What about the Western Tanager, which I featured on my previous version of this family? Not a tanager — it belongs, to the Cardinalidae [Cardinals, Grosbeaks & allies]. Same goes for Scarlet Tanager, Summer Tanager, and Hepatic Tanager. Not tanagers. The sought-after ant-tanagers of the tropical undergrowth? Not tanagers. The bright and colorful chlorophonias and euphonias? Not tanagers.
So what is a tanager? It’s still hard to define, but the genetic evidence is trickling in, and a lot of plain-colored birds appear to tanagers.
A seedeater on a tropic fenceline — like the male Variable Seedeater (below) — that may be a tanager. The grassquits, Bananaquit, and the saltators — they are all tanagers. These aren’t your father’s Tanagers any more.
Enough said… However it doesn’t end here… the article sgoes through genetics and natural history, ending up with a fact that surprised me, and may surprise you as well:
There are two main sets of tanagers:
One group includes the original genus Thraupis, and its 9 species, including the very widespread and abundant Blue-gray Tanager (right). This is also the group that includes the honeycreepers, dacnises, grassquits, seedeatersand some of the “cardinals” of South America such as the popular Red-capped Cardinal.
In this group of tanagers is the genus Tangara(~50 species) are generally bright, gaudy, and travel in mixed-species flocks.
There is a second major group in the “new” Thraupidae. A basal set in this other group are 9 species of brightly-patterned Ramphocelus tanagers. It is said that
that, spectrographically, the intense red on male Ramphocelus is the brightest red in the bird world. Passerini’s Tanager is one of them, and there is strong sexual dimorphism (male above, female below). This used to be called ‘Scarlet-rumped Tanager.’ While males look alike throughout its range, the females in western Costa Rica are decidedly different. ‘Scarlet-rumped’ has recently been split into Passerini’s (the widespread bird of Atlantic lowlands from Mexico to Panama) and Cherrie’s (on the Pacific slope of Costa Rica).
It is my hope that the ornithologists don’t tinker too much with the name “tanager.” We have birds in many different families that are called “chat,” or “finch,” or “redstart.” Just because Slender-billed Finch is now a tanager does not mean it is wise to revise the English name and cause literary confusion of years. I can live with some small changes here or there — “Stripe-headed Tanager” became Stripe-headed Spindalis without much problem — and, in fact, the genus Spindalis is now in different family, the Phoenicophilidae — but my plea would be to avoid wholesale English name changes in the quest for the “perfect” name. Yet, in the end, no matter how a “tanager” eventually comes to be defined or named, these are fascinating and often colorful birds of the Neotropics. They, with hummingbirds, parrots, and toucans, are a core component of any Neotropical adventure. Birds of the World (Creagus).
So, if you are going for a birding tour with us, please don’t hesitate in asking for a real birdwatching tour guide and a birdwatching itinerary, and go “tanager targeting”… It truly won’t be a let down!