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North American Tanagers, Tanagers Elsewhere

Tanagers are 239 species of extremely colorful, perching birds that make up the family Thraupidae. The evolutionary history and phylogenetic relationships of the tanagers and related birds are not well understood. Recent taxonomic treatments have included the tanagers as a subfamily (Thraupinae) of a large family of New World birds, the Emberizidae, which also includes the wood warblers, cardinals, sparrows, buntings, blackbirds, and orioles. Whether the tanagers are treated as a family or as a sub-family, they nevertheless constitute a distinct group of birds.

Tanagers are birds of forests, forest edges, and shrublands. Species of tanagers occur from temperate southern Alaska and Canada south to Brazil and northern Argentina. Almost all species, however, breed or winter in the tropics. Tanagers that breed in temperate habitats are all migratory, spending their non-breeding season in tropical forests. In the ecological sense, these migratory tanagers should be viewed as tropical birds that venture to the temperate zone for a few months each year for the purpose of breeding.

Tanagers are small birds, ranging in body length from 3-12 in (8-30 cm), and are generally smaller than 8 in (20 cm). Their body shape is not particularly distinctive, but their brilliant colors are. The plumage of tanagers can be quite spectacularly and extravagantly colored in rich hues of red, crimson, yellow, blue, or black, making these among the most beautiful of all the birds. In most species, the female has a more subdued coloration than the male.

Tanagers feed in trees and shrubs on fruit, seeds, and nectar; their diet may also include insects and other invertebrates.

Tanagers defend a territory during the breeding season. An important element of the defense is song, and some species are accomplished vocalists, although tanagers are not renowned in this respect. The cup-shaped or domed nest is built by the female. She also incubates the 1-5 eggs. In general, tropical tanagers lay fewer eggs than species that breed in the temperate zone. The female tanager is fed by the male during her egg-incubating seclusion. Both parents tend and feed their young.

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