Friday, June 4, 2010

Western Tanager - Discovered in Idaho by Lewis & Clark

Here in Idaho we are enjoying a huge wave of Western Tanagers coming through.  Two years ago we had a similar fantastic irruption, but this year it seems even bigger!  Even all my non-birding friends and family are calling and e-mailing me asking "What are those beautiful yellow birds with orange faces and black wings?"  They really are being seen just about everywhere in the area.

It is also fun to note that the Western Tanager was discovered in Idaho by Meriwether Lewis of the historically famous Lewis & Clark expedition on June 6th, 1806.  Almost 204 years ago to the date!

Here is Lewis' journal entry on the matter:

"we meet with a beautifull little bird in this neighbourhood about the size and somewhat the shape of the large sparrow.    it is reather longer in proportion to it's bulk than the sparrow.    it measures 7 inches from the extremity of the beek to that of the tail, the latter occupying 2½ inches.    the beak is reather more than half an inch in length, and is formed much like the virginia nitingale;  it is thick and large for a bird of it's size; wide at the base, both chaps convex, and pointed, the uper exceeds the under chap a little is somewhat curved and of a brown colour; the lower chap of a greenish yellow.    the eye full reather large and of a black colour both puple and iris.    the plumage is remarkably delicate; that of the neck and head is of a fine orrange yellow and red, the latter predominates on the top of the head and arround the base of the beak from whence it graduly deminishes & towards the lower part of the neck, the orrange yellow prevails most; the red has the appearance of being laid over a ground of yellow.    the breast, the sides, rump and some long feathers which lie between the legs and extend underneath the tail are of a fine orrange yellow.    the tail, back and wings are black, ecept a small stripe of yellow on the outer part of the middle joint of the wing, ¼ of an inch wide and an inch in length.    the tail is composed of twelve feathers of which those in the center are reather shortest, and the plumage of all the feathers of the tail is longest on that side of the quill next the center of the tail.    the legs and feet are black, nails long and sharp; it has four toes on each foot, of which three are forward and one behind; that behind is as long as the two outer of the three toes in front."  Courtesy of

There was even a brief campaign around 1930 to make the Western Tanager the State Bird of Idaho by a lady who recognized the historical merit of the Lewis & Clark discovery in Idaho.  Unfortunately, not many Idahoans at the time recognized the bird and the school children voted instead for the Mountain Bluebird (see the rest of the story here).  

Many Idahoans are finally getting familiar with our Western Tanager!


  1. A really lovely bird! And thanks for the education on the discoverer! Very cool!

  2. Great captures of the Tanager! I really liked the excerpt from Louis & Clark!

  3. I love the Lewis entry. One of my heroes! And like you, we get many calls and neighbors asking us about them. I must admit, I get slightly annoyed with them. They eat EVERYTHING we put out. Finch seeds, fruit, bread crumbs, etc. But they're still pretty neat!

  4. Gorgeous bird and great photos!

  5. I like how you weave in historical fact with your birding....Michelle