The Flame-colored Tanager is a native of Mexico and Central America. They are members of the cardinal family, rather than “true” tanagers. Male Flame-colored Tanagers are a brilliant red color, while females are an equally vibrant yellow. Plumage like this is bound to stand out, so it is easy to imagine why, when a bright yellow female Flame-colored Tanager was spotted in Wisconsin, it turned a few heads. The bright color, alone, is not the reason why local birders thronged to the site where this bird was spotted. A Flame-colored Tanager in this region is unheard of.
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The Flame-colored Tanager was almost never found within the boundaries of the United States up until 1985. In 1985, a male Flame-colored Tanager moved into a mountainous section of Arizona where it paired up with a female Western Tanager. Flame-colored Tanagers have made appearances in Arizona since then.
Sheridan Park in Cudahy is a far cry from Arizona. The lakefront park in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin lies nearly 2,000 miles off track for the little yellow bird which was spotted there. It is not surprising that, as reports came in about this unusual visitor, birdwatchers numbering in the hundreds made their way to the park to check an unlikely entry off of their “life lists.”
Vagrant birds are not entirely uncommon, especially during the spring migration season. We’ve previously reported on the appearance of a Hoopoe in Northern Ireland and a Pink-footed Goose in Michigan. Stories like these are exciting and tend to draw crowds, but the Flame-colored Tanager is different.
Flame-colored Tanagers have only ever been reported in Arizona and Texas. Unlike many other species, they do not make frequent vagrant visits to different regions of the United States. This individual is the very first instance of one to be recorded in Wisconsin, but it also the first to be found in any U.S. state other than the previous two. It is very likely that this visit represents a true once in a lifetime opportunity for Wisconsin birders.
So why has a Flame-colored Tanager appeared in Wisconsin? Vagrancy refers to birds that are found sporadically outside of the boundaries of their typical habitat ranges. Vagrant birds, as mentioned above, happen from time to time and are almost impossible to predict. Some vagrants stay in the new region, but most move on. The spring breeding season is peak season for vagrancy as migrants move across the country and, indeed, across the entire globe. Overnight migration numbers for much of the country are numbering in the hundreds of millions as this process unfolds. What is extremely strange about this situation is that the Flame-colored Tanager is generally not a migratory bird. The reason why this individual ended up so far afield when migration is not a typical part of its behavior patterns is likely to remain a mystery.
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