Green-headed tanager Tangara seledon, copyright Lindolfo Souto.

Belongs within: Thraupidae.
Contains: Thraupis.

Tangara is a diverse genus of small tanagers, widespread in the Neotropical region, showing a wide range of bright colour patterns. They feed on a combination of fruit and insects, the latter mostly gleaned off vegetation.

Finches in drag
Published 13 April 2017
Green-headed tanager Tangara seledon, copyright Dario Sanches.

In many parts of tropical South America, it is common to see small flocks of brightly coloured small birds foraging among vegetation, plucking off berries or hunting for insects. In many cases, these flocks may contain individuals of multiple or even several species. These are the tanagers, one of the Neotropical region’s most characteristic bird families.

Tanagers are members of the bird clade known as the nine-primaried songbirds (so-called because their wings have nine functional primary feathers rather than the ten of other songbirds) that also includes the finches, buntings and cardinals. The largest genus of tanagers, and indeed one of the larger genera of birds in general, is Tangara. This genus includes about fifty species found in various parts of the neotropics. In their overall structure, they are fairly uniform: small, sturdy birds with a stout, moderate-length bill and an average-length tail (Hilty 2011). In other words, they have a fairly unremarkable, finchy-type appearance. In colour and patterning, however, they are considerably more varied, to the extent that I am at a loss to know where to begin. There are species of a rich, deep blue and of a bright, emerald green. There are species with bold, contrasting patterns of blues, blacks, greens or golds; there are species of a solid, uniform brilliance. There are species with caps or chests of orange or black. There are even a few, such as the plain-coloured tanager Tangara inornata, that eschew the gaudy pigments of their congeners entirely in favour of more restrained patterns of greys and beiges. In many species, males and females show little or no difference in appearance; however, in the black-capped group (including species such as the black-capped tanager T. heinei), the males have contrasting patterns of black and blue or yellow whereas the females are largely green and grey.

Golden tanager Tangara arthus, copyright Alejandro Bayer Tamayo.

As noted above, tanagers feed on a mixed diet of fruit and insects. The fruit part is dominated by small berries that they can either swallow whole or mash with their bills before swallowing them piecemeal. Studies on the mixed-species flocks formed by Tangara species have found that while different species show very little variation in how they obtain the fruit component of their diet, they usually show very distinct specialisations in how they forage for insects. Some hunt for insects along branches, others prefer to look on leaves. Branch-hunting species may differ in the thickness and density of branches preferred, or in the mode of searching employed. For instance, the golden tanager T. arthus and flame-faced tanager T. parzudakii can both be found foraging on moss-covered branches, but the flame-faced tanager usually catches insects by probing directly into the moss whereas the golden tanager usually either focuses on the moss-free sections or catches insects sitting on the moss surface without probing. A few species catch insects aerially, making short sallies from a perch.

Blue-grey tanager Thraupis episcopus, indicated by phylogenetic analysis as a species of Tangara, copyright Mdf.

Somewhat unexpectedly for a genus of this size and diversity in a group as taxonomically challenging as the tanagers, molecular phylogenetic studies have largely corroborated Tangara‘s monophyly. They have also supported the monophyly of most of the species groups recognised within the genus of the basis of similarities in plumage patterns (Sedano & Burns 2010). The only exception has been the discovery that many of the species previously included in the genus Thraupis form a clade nested within Tangara, leading to the suggestion that these two genera should be synonymised (apart from in informal discussions online, I’m not aware of anyone suggesting the alternative that Tangara be split). The ‘Thraupis‘ species are larger and plainer in coloration than most other Tangara species. A few taxonomists have also suggested that the colourful green tanagers of the genus Chlorochrysa should be included in Tangara, but this relationship has not been supported by molecular data. Chlorochrysa species are glossier than the often more matt-coloured Tangara, and they have an acrobatic mode of foraging involving postures such as regularly hanging upside-down that differ from any Tangara species.

Systematics of Tangara
<==Tangara Brisson 1760 [incl. Calliste Boie 1826, Tanagrella Swainson 1838; Callistinae, Tanagrellinae, Tangarinae]B94
    |  i. s.: T. cabanisi (Sclater 1868) [=Calliste cabanisi; incl. C. sclateri non T. arthus sclateri (Lafresnaye 1854)]H11
    |         T. peruviana (Desmarest 1806) [=Tanagra peruviana]H11
    |         T. phillipsi Graves & Weske 1987H11
    |         T. rufigenis (Sclater 1857) [=Calliste rufigenis]H11
    |         ‘Calliste’ yeniSS66
    |--+--T. labradorides (Boissonneau 1840)JT12, H11 [=Tanagra (Aglaia) labradoridesH11]
    |  |    |--T. l. labradoridesH11
    |  |    `--T. l. chaupensis Chapman 1925H11
    |  `--+--+--+--T. chrysotis (du Bus de Gisignies 1846)JF06, H11 [=Calliste chrysotisH11]
    |     |  |  `--T. xanthocephala (Tschudi 1844)BKB15, H11 [=Callospiza xanthocephalaH11]
    |     |  |       |--T. x. xanthocephalaH11
    |     |  |       |--T. x. lamprotis (Sclater 1851)H11
    |     |  |       `--T. x. venusta (Sclater 1855)H11
    |     |  `--+--+--T. arthus Lesson 1832BKB15, H11
    |     |     |  |    |--T. a. arthusH11
    |     |     |  |    |--T. a. aequatorialis (Taczanowski & Berlepsch 1885)H11
    |     |     |  |    |--T. a. aurulenta (Lafesnaye 1843)H11
    |     |     |  |    |--T. a. goodsoni Hartert 1913H11
    |     |     |  |    |--T. a. occidentalis Chapman 1914H11
    |     |     |  |    |--T. a. palmitae Meyer de Schauensee 1947H11
    |     |     |  |    |--T. a. pulchra (Tschudi 1844)H11
    |     |     |  |    |--T. a. sclateri (Lafresnaye 1854)H11
    |     |     |  |    `--T. a. sophiae (Berlepsch 1901)H11
    |     |     |  `--+--T. florida (Sclater & Salvin 1869)JF06, H11 [=Calliste floridaH11; incl. T. schrankii anchicayaeH11]
    |     |     |     `--T. icterocephala (Bonaparte 1851)JF06, H11 [=Calliste icterocephalaH11]
    |     |     |          |--T. i. icterocephalaH11
    |     |     |          |--T. i. frantzii (Cabanis 1861)H11
    |     |     |          `--T. i. oresbia Wetmore 1962H11
    |     |     `--+--T. johannae (de Dalmas 1900)BKB15, H11 [=Calliste johannaeH11]
    |     |        `--+--T. parzudakii (Lafresnaye 1843)BKB15, H11 [=Tanagra parzudakiiH11]
    |     |           |    |--T. p. parzudakiiH11
    |     |           |    |--T. p. lunigera (Sclater 1851)H11
    |     |           |    `--T. p. urubambae Zimmer 1943H11
    |     |           `--T. schrankii (Spix 1825)BKB15, H11 [=Tanagra schrankiiH11, Calliste schrankiSS66]
    |     |                |--T. s. schrankiiH11
    |     |                `--T. s. venezuelana Phelps & Phelps 1957H11
    |     `--+--+--+--T. inornata (Gould 1855)JF06, H11 [=Calliste inornataH11]
    |        |  |  |    |--T. i. inornataH11
    |        |  |  |    |--T. i. languens Bangs & Barbour 1922H11
    |        |  |  |    `--T. i. rava Wetmore 1963H11
    |        |  |  `--T. mexicana (Linnaeus 1766)JF06, H11 [=Tanagra mexicanaH11]
    |        |  |       |--T. m. mexicanaH11
    |        |  |       |--T. m. boliviana (Bonarparte 1851)H11 [=Calliste bolivianaSS66]
    |        |  |       |--T. m. brasiliensis (Linnaeus 1766)H11
    |        |  |       |--T. m. media (Berlepsch & Hartert 1902)H11
    |        |  |       `--T. m. vieilloti (Sclater 1857)H11
    |        |  `--+--T. chilensis (Vigors 1832)JF06, H11 [=Aglaia chilensisH11]
    |        |     |    |--T. c. chilensisH11
    |        |     |    |--T. c. caelicolor (Sclater 1851) [=T. chilensis coelicolor (l. c.)]H11
    |        |     |    `--T. c. paradisea (Swainson 1837)H11
    |        |     `--+--T. callophrys (Cabanis 1848)JF06, H11 [=Hypothlypis callophrysH11, Tanagrella callophrysH11]
    |        |        `--T. velia (Linnaeus 1758)JF06, H11 [=Motacilla veliaH11, Tanagrella veliaH11]
    |        |             |--T. v. veliaH11
    |        |             |--T. v. cyanomelas (Wied 1830)H11
    |        |             |--T. v. iridina (Hartlaub 1841)H11
    |        |             `--T. v. signata (Hellmayr 1905)H11
    |        `--+--+--T. cyanotis (Sclater 1858)BKB15, H11 [=Calliste cyanotisH11]
    |           |  `--+--T. gyrola (Linnaeus 1758)BKB15, H11 (see below for synonymy)
    |           |     |    |--T. g. gyrolaH11
    |           |     |    |--T. g. albertinae (Pelzeln 1877)H11
    |           |     |    |--T. g. bangsi (Hellmayr 1911)H11
    |           |     |    |--T. g. catharinae (Helmmayr 1911)H11
    |           |     |    |--T. g. deleticiaE52
    |           |     |    |--T. g. nupera Bangs 1917H11
    |           |     |    |--T. g. parva Zimmer 1943H11
    |           |     |    |--T. g. toddi Bangs & Penard 1921H11
    |           |     |    `--T. g. viridissima (Lafresnaye 1847)H11
    |           |     `--T. lavinia (Cassin 1858)JF06, H11 [=Calliste laviniaH11]
    |           |          |--T. l. laviniaH11
    |           |          |--T. l. cara (Bangs 1905)H11
    |           |          `--T. l. dalmasi (Hellmayr 1910)H11
    |           `--+--+--T. fastuosa (Lesson 1831)JF06, H11 [=Tanagra fastuosaH11]
    |              |  `--T. seledon (Statius Müller 1776)JF06, H11 [=Tanagra seledonH11]
    |              `--+--T. cyanocephala (Statius Müller 1776)JF06, H11 [=Tanagra cyanocephalaH11]
    |                 |    |--T. c. cyanocephalaH11
    |                 |    |--T. c. cearensis Cory 1916H11
    |                 |    `--T. c. corallina (Berlepsch 1903)H11
    |                 `--+--T. cyanoventris (Vieillot 1819)JT12, H11 [=Tanagra cyanoventrisH11]
    |                    `--T. desmaresti (Vieillot 1819)JF06, H11 [=Tanagra desmarestiH11]
    `--+--+--T. vassorii (Boissonneau 1840)BKB15, H11 [=Tanagra (Euphone) vassoriiH11]
       |  |    |--T. v. vassoriiH11
       |  |    |--T. v. atrocoerulea (Tschudi 1844)H11
       |  |    `--T. v. branickii (Taczanowski 1882)H11
       |  `--+--T. nigroviridis (Lafresnaye 1843)JF06, H11 [=Tanagra nigroviridisH11]
       |     |    |--T. n. nigroviridisH11
       |     |    |--T. n. berlepschi (Taczanowski 1884)H11
       |     |    |--T. n. cyanescens (Sclater 1857) [incl. T. nigroviridis consobrina]H11
       |     |    `--T. n. lozanoana Aveledo & Pérez 1994H11
       |     `--+--T. dowii (Salvin 1863)JF06, H11 [=Calliste dowiiH11]
       |        `--T. fucosa (Nelson 1912)JF06, H11 [=T. fucosusH11]
          `--+--+--+--T. larvata (du Bus de Gisignies 1846)BKB15, H11 [=Calliste larvataH11, T. nigrocincta larvataL81]
             |  |  |    |--T. l. larvataH11
             |  |  |    |--T. l. centralis (Berlepsch 1912)H11
             |  |  |    |--T. l. fanny (Lafresnaye 1847)H11
             |  |  |    `--T. l. franciscae (Sclater 1856)H11
             |  |  `--+--T. cyanicollis (d’Orbigny & Lafresnaye 1837)BKB15, H11 [=Aglaia cyanicollisH11]
             |  |     |    |--T. c. cyanicollisH11
             |  |     |    |--T. c. albotibialis Traylor 1950H11
             |  |     |    |--T. c. caeruleocephala (Swainson 1838)H11
             |  |     |    |--T. c. cyanopygia (Berlepsch & Taczanowski 1884)H11
             |  |     |    |--T. c. granadensis (Berlepsch 1884)H11
             |  |     |    |--T. c. hannahiae (Cassin 1864)H11
             |  |     |    `--T. c. melanogaster Cherrie & Reichenberger 1923H11
             |  |     `--T. nigrocincta (Bonaparte 1838)BKB15, H11 [=Aglaia nigrocinctaH11]
             |  `--+--T. palmeri (Hellmayr 1909)BKB15, H11 [=Calospiza palmeriH11]
             |     `--+--T. varia (Statius Müller 1776)BKB15, H11 [=Tanagra variaH11]
             |        `--+--T. rufigula (Bonaparte 1851)JT12, H11 [=Tanagrella rufigulaH11]
             |           `--+--T. punctata (Linnaeus 1766)BKB15, H11 [=Tanagra punctataH11]
             |              |    |--T. p. punctataH11
             |              |    |--T. p. annectens Zimmer 1943H11
             |              |    |--T. p. perenensis Chapman 1925H11
             |              |    |--T. p. punctulata (Sclater & Salvin 1876)H11
             |              |    `--T. p. zamorae Chapman 1925H11
             |              `--+--T. guttata (Cabanis 1851)BKB15, H11 [=Callispiza guttataH11]
             |                 |    |--T. g. guttataH11
             |                 |    |--T. g. bogotensis Hellmayr & Seilern 1912H11
             |                 |    |--T. g. chrysophrys (Sclater 1851)H11
             |                 |    |--T. g. eusticta Todd 1912H11
             |                 |    |--T. g. tolimae Chapman 1914H11
             |                 |    `--T. g. trinitatis Todd 1912H11
             |                 `--T. xanthogastra (Sclater 1851)BKB15, H11 [=Calliste xanthogastraSS66]
             |                      |--T. x. xanthogastraH11
             |                      `--T. x. phelpsi Zimmer 1943H11
             `--+--+--T. preciosa (Cabanis 1851)BKB15, H11 [=Callispiza preciosaH11]
                |  `--+--T. meyerdeschauenseei Schulenberg & Binford 1985JT12, H11
                |     `--+--T. cayana (Linnaeus 1766)BKB15, H11 [=Tanagra cayanaH11]
                |        |    |--T. c. cayanaH11
                |        |    |--T. c. chloroptera (Vieillot 1819)H11
                |        |    |--T. c. flava (Gmelin 1789)H11
                |        |    |--T. c. fulvescens Todd 1922H11
                |        |    |--T. c. huberi (Hellmayr 1910)H11
                |        |    |--T. c. margaritae (Allen 1891)H11
                |        |    `--T. c. sincipitalis (Berlepsch 1907)H11
                |        `--+--T. cucullata (Swainson 1834)BKB15, H11 [=Aglaia cucullataH11]
                |           |    |--T. c. cucullataH11
                |           |    `--T. c. versicolor (Lawrence 1878)H11
                |           `--T. vitriolina (Cabanis 1850)BKB15, H11 [=Callispiza vitriolinaH11]
                `--+--T. ruficervix (Prévost & des Murs 1846)BKB15, H11 [=Tanagra ruficervixH11]
                   |    |--T. r. ruficervixH11
                   |    |--T. r. amabilis Zimmer 1943H11
                   |    |--T. r. fulvicervix (Sclater & Salvin 1876)H11
                   |    |--T. r. inca Parkes 1969H11
                   |    |--T. r. leucotis (Sclater 1851)H11
                   |    `--T. r. taylori (Taczanowski & Berlepsch 1885)H11
                   `--+--T. cyanoptera (Swainson 1834)BKB15, H11 [=Aglaia cyanopteraH11]
                      |    |--T. c. cyanopteraH11
                      |    `--T. c. whitelyi (Salvin & Godman 1884)H11
                      `--+--T. viridicollis (Taczanowski 1884)BKB15, H11 [=Calliste argentea viridicollisH11]
                         |    |--T. v. viridicollisH11
                         |    `--T. v. fulvigula (Berlepsch & Stolzmann 1906)H11
                         `--+--T. argyrofenges (Sclater & Salvin 1876)JF06, H11 [=Calliste argyrofengesH11]
                            |    |--T. a. argyrofengesH11
                            |    `--T. a. caeruleigularis Carriker 1935H11
                            `--T. heinei (Cabanis 1851)JF06, H11 [=Procnias heineiH11]
Hybrids: Tangara arnaulti [T. cayana × T. pretiosa]H11
         Tangara gouldi [T. cyanoventris × T. desmaresti]H11

Tangara gyrola (Linnaeus 1758)BKB15, H11 [=Fringilla gyrolaH11; incl. T. gyroloidesH11, Aglaia peruviana (preoc.)H11]

*Type species of generic name indicated


[B94] Bock, W. J. 1994. History and nomenclature of avian family-group names. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 222: 1–281.

[BKB15] Burleigh, J. G., R. T. Kimball & E. L. Braun. 2015. Building the avian tree of life using a large-scale, sparse supermatrix. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 84: 53–63.

[E52] Eisenmann, E. 1952. Annotated list of birds of Barro Colorado Island, Panama Canal Zone. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections 117 (5): 1–62.

[H11] Hilty, S. L. 2011. Family Thraupidae (tanagers). In: Hoyo, J. del, A. Elliott & D. A. Christie (eds) Handbook of the Birds of the World vol. 16. Tanagers to New World Blackbirds pp. 46–329. Lynx Edicions: Barcelona.

[JT12] Jetz, W., G. H. Thomas, J. B. Joy, K. Hartmann & A. Ø. Mooers. 2012. The global diversity of birds in space and time. Nature 491: 444–448.

[JF06] Jønsson, K. A., & J. Fjeldså. 2006. A phylogenetic supertree of oscine passerine birds. Zoologica Scripta 35: 149–186.

[L81] Long, J. L. 1981. Introduced Birds of the World: The worldwide history, distribution and influence of birds introduced to new environments. Reed: Sydney.

[SS66] Sclater, P. L., & O. Salvin. 1866. Catalogue of birds collected by Mr. E. Bartlett on the River Uyacali, Eastern Peru, with notes and descriptions of new species. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 1866: 175–201.

Sedano, R. E., & K. J. Burns. 2010. Are the northern Andes a species pump for Neotropical birds? Phylogenetics and biogeography of a clade of Neotropical tanagers (Aves: Thraupini). Journal of Biogeography 37: 325–343.

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