TANAGER, a word adapted from the quasi-Latin Tanagra of Linnaeus, which again is an adaptation, perhaps with a classical allusion, of Tangara, used by M. J. Brisson and G. L. L. Buffon, and said by G. de L. Marcgrave (Hist. Rer. Nat. Brasiliae , p. 214) to be the Brazilian name of certain birds found in that country. From them it has since been extended to a great many others mostly belonging to the southern portion of the New World, now recognized by ornithologists as forming a distinct family Tanagridae of the Oscines division of Passerine birds allied to the Fringillidae (see FINCH) ; and distinguished from them chiefly by their feebler conformation and more exposed nostrils. They are confined to the New World, and are specially characteristic of the tropical forests of Central and South America.
The tanagers have been examined systematically by P. L. Sclater, and in the British Museum Catalogue (xi. pp. 49-307) he admits the existence of 375 species, which he arranges in 59 genera, forming six subfamilies, Procniatinae, Euphoniinae, Tanagrinae, Lamprotinae, Phoenicophilinae, and Pitylinae. These are of very unequal extent, for, while the first of them consists of but a single species, Procnias tersa the position of which may be for several reasons still open to doubt the third includes more than 200. Nearly all are birds of small size, the largest barely exceeding a song-thrush. Most of them are remarkable for their gaudy colouring, and this is especially the case in those forming the genus called by Sclater, as by most other authors, Calliste, a term inadmissible through preoccupation, to which the name of Tanagra of right seems to belong, while that which he names Tanagra should probably be known as Thraupis. The whole family is almost confined to the Neotropical region, and there are several forms peculiar to the Antilles; but not a tenth of the species reach even southern Mexico, and not a dozen appear in the northern part of that country. Of the genus Pyranga, which has the most northern range of all, three if not four species are common summer immigrants to some part or other of tne United States, and two of them, P. rubra and P. aestiva, known as the scarlet tanager and the summer redbird, reach Canada and Bermuda. P. aestiva has a western representative, P. cooperi, which by some authors is not, recognized as a distinct species. The males of all these are clad in glowing red, P. rubra having, however, the wings and tail black. The remaining species, P. ludoviciana, the males of which are mostly yellow and black, with the head only red, does not appear eastward of the Missouri plains, and has not so northerly a range. Another species, P. hepatica, has shown itself within the limits of the United States. In all these the females are plainly attired; but generally among the Tanagers, however bright may be their coloration, both sexes are nearly alike in plumage. Little has been recorded of the habits of the species of Central or South America, but those of the north have been as closely observed as the rather retiring nature of the birds renders possible, and it is known that insects, especially in the larval condition, and berries afford the greater part of their food. They have a pleasing song, and build a shallow nest, in which the eggs, generally three in number and of a greenish-blue marked with brown and purple, are laid. A few species are regularly but sparingly imported into Europe alive, and do well as cage birds.
On the whole the Tanagridae may perhaps be considered to hold the same relation to the Fringillidae as the Icteridae do to the Sturnidae and the Mniotiltidae to the Sylminae or Turdinae, in each case the purely New- World Family being the " feebler " type.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)