Finding a Scarlet Tanager

First appeared in slightly different form in Bird Watcher’s Digest magazine

During the migration last May I went on a quest for my favorite bird, the scarlet tanager. It was a quest that ended with a twist. This would be a very corny story if it weren’t true.

Every May, my part of the world is rich with migrating birds. I live north of Chicago, on the shore of Lake Michigan. It’s in the heart of the Midwestern flyway. In winter you can see bald eagles if you keep your eyes open. Snowy owls have been spotted on our beaches.


I usually drift through the forest preserves near the Botanic Garden in Glencoe, Illinois, a few miles from my home. I’m content to see whatever I find there. Sometimes I count up the birds I’ve seen. It’s not a big deal, just a way to tap into a guy’s collecting or hunting instinct.

But this day I got it into my mind that I’d see a scarlet tanager. Why is this hot red bird with jet black wings important? I was a six-year-old city kid when I first saw a picture of a scarlet tanager in school. Until then, I’d thought that birds were little brown things, like the sparrows around my apartment building.

What a discovery that bird was to a kid who loved crayons. I remember looking further and finding birds that were blue, yellow, many-colored. When I saw my first live tanager at Allerton Park in central Illinois, that same feeling of discovery hit. I liked it. I wanted it again.

The odds were excellent. After an hour in the woods, I had 30 or 40 species scrawled on a folded scrap of paper I kept in my army jacket. But no scarlet tanager. I went deeper into the woods. I moved like a commando, snapping no twigs, rustling no leaves.

I climbed a tree to blend in. I sat in that big oak for most of an hour. Insects bit. My skin was scratched from twigs. My clothes were stained with sap. No tanager.

(Get ready for some bird porn now, the obligitory name dropping that turns on readers of bird stories….) I’d seen the three kinds of thrushes we get. I’d seen a ruby throated hummingbird, always a kick. Out west, people see hummingbirds a lot, but they’re not common where I live. I saw a green heron that flew in silence thorough branches over a creek. I saw a black crowned night heron, too, and a red-tailed hawk being chased by a fast little marsh hawk for reasons only hawks knew.

I figured I’d move to another site. Half way down I lost footing and fell out of the tree. Bam. On my back amid rocks, branches and poison ivy. Okay, now, more than before, I was on a mission.

I spotted every Midwest warbler, including some I’d never seen. The golden-winged was one. And the Connecticut. I saw deep blue indigo buntings, goldfinches in meadows, yellow-billed cuckoos with long spotted tails, purple finches—another first—and gray-brown flycatchers I can never be sure I’m identifying right. I didn’t see a scarlet tanager.


So I gave up. Left the wilds. Headed home, clothes ripped and dirty, face and hands mosquito-bitten, scraped, scratched, bleeding, hair and shoes sticky with burrs.

In my bedroom upstairs, I stood in front of a big window, pulling my tee-shirt up and over my head. This was slow going because my shoulder ached. The fall was beginning to make itself felt.

When my head emerged, the first thing I saw was a scarlet tanager. Right in front of my face, through the window. Wait. Another one. There were two male scarlet tanagers in my neighbor’s tree.

The distance between the tanagers and me was under ten feet. I wouldn’t have needed binoculars even if I’d had them. I could see every scarlet and black nuance—even glints in their eyes. These were better than the scarlet tanagers I saw in that old bird book years ago.

Please keep in mind that this is a true story. It doesn’t sound like one. It sounds like some kind of morality tale. A fable, perhaps, about how the things we want are really right in your own front yard, blah, blah.

Okay. I can’t help that. This one time, the things were right in my own front yard.

I’ve thought about this from time to time, especially when I find myself pursuing something that appears elusive. Then I think, “Maybe it’s not so elusive. Maybe it’s closer than you think. Hang in there” (So I guess, in a way, this was a morality tale. But still true).


One Response to “Finding a Scarlet Tanager”

  1. norm schaefer says:

    Concerning the science fiction tie in with bird watchibng. I remember in my youth seeing the ad plastered across an ancient CTA bus in big, black letters the immortal Hitchcock plug ‘The Birds’ is coming’. As a teen I thought this was surely a grammatical error and was quite proud of my dicovery, only to find out later from my english teacher that the expression was quite correct, and, by the way, a great ad, since it got people talking about the movie. A movie before it’s time,as it were. The first eco disaster film, except for , of course, the never to be forgotten ‘It came from beneath the Sea’. And who could forget ‘Them’? Most recently tht theme has been explored again by ‘Godzilla’ with Matthew Brodrick. The radiation factor has not been a factor, so far……..

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.