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Birds by Mel - Western Tanager Stamp, Natural History Facts and Personal Observations

Updated on September 9, 2014
Western Tanager stamp of the United States Postal Service Songbird series
Western Tanager stamp of the United States Postal Service Songbird series | Source

Flying into Unexplored Territory

Writing about heavy, deadly serious political topics has me a little worn out physically, mentally and spiritually, so I thought I would lighten up for a while and take my writing in an unexplored direction. I have written quite a few articles about birds for other writing sites, but this is the first time I've dared to share my humble knowledge and observations about birds here on Hub Pages. I hope you enjoy this series, which I plan to be ongoing.

Although most letter carriers are as aloof to birds as the next guy walking down the street, it seems natural that we should be very knowledgeable about them, being that we are outside all day and we have the best job in the world for observing bird life. Nowadays I am keenly in tune to the avian activity going on all around me, but this was not always the case.

That situation changed drastically in the late 90s when I saw a Black-shouldered Kite hovering over a vacant lot. Ironically, it was the same vacant lot where the (relatively) new post office that I work at stands today. I was fascinated by this quirky bird as it quartered off the field and then stopped in frequent intervals to hover helicopter-like in search of meadow voles hunkering down in the grass below. The unusual raptor piqued my curiosity so much that as soon as I got off work I ran out and bought a bird book. Shortly thereafter I had another encounter as I drove up to within almost touching distance of a Cooper's Hawk that was munching a pigeon on a sidewalk. This rendezvous inspired the purchase of an even larger bird book. Since that time I have been hooked on birds, my bookshelf is filled with bird books, and as I make my daily delivery rounds I am truly in touch with the avian sights and sounds that take place all around me.

That was my birding epiphany, but what about my bird writing epiphany? I've toyed with the idea of bird hubs in my head for a long time, but in keeping with the theme of my online identity I felt like I should tackle the subject of birds from a postal perspective. For the longest time I couldn't figure out a suitable angle, until I came across the lovely bird stamps of this latest Songbird postal series. At that point it occurred to me that I could approach birds from the stamp angle in order to preserve my postal writing motif and put a unique spin on the subject. So in this bird series I intend to write a little bit about the stamp, then a little bit about the bird, and finally follow it up with some observations I have made about the species while delivering the mail or otherwise. I love writing about birds, so I hope I do the topic justice here.

United States Postal Service Songbird Series
United States Postal Service Songbird Series | Source

The Stamp

Since the Western Tanager was one of the landmark species of my birding avocation, I find it appropriate to start with this colorful denizen of the piney treetops.

The Western Tanager stamp you see above, the one that helped to get this bird series airborne, is part of the United States Postal Service "Songbirds" collection. This superbly rendered assemblage that was issued April 5, 2014, was designed by Derry Noyes and painted by Robert Giusti from photographs.

Robert Giusti is a brilliant commercial artist whose work has appeared on the cover of magazines, albums and books. He is probably most recognized for creating the cover art for best selling novelist Stephen King's It and Misery. He has also contributed work for other bird stamp series, including 2013's Tufted Puffins and 2012's Birds of Prey.

Giusti has been fascinated by wildlife since childhood. Although he is not a birder, while painting he attempts to immerse himself in the personality of the birds he is depicting, as these are displayed within the birds' natural habitats. Bird personality is skillfully depicted by Mr. Giusti in the Songbird series; from the grouchy face of the disgruntled Goldfinch to the cocksure exuberance of the Western Meadowlark to the inquisitive alertness of the Western Tanager that will be studied here.

Female Western Tanager
Female Western Tanager | Source

The Bird

The Western Tanager (Piranga Ludoviciana) has recently gone through a serious identity crisis. Once classified as a member of the Tanager family, this bird and the other members of the Piranga genus have now been placed in the Cardinal family. Gone are the bird's mysterious, romantic associations with the colorful Tanagers of the dripping, twilit tropical rain forests. Certainly not even the most malicious efforts of bickering taxonomists, however, can take away the incredible beauty of this species with its flaming red head feathers that contrast brilliantly against its yellow body and black wings. It is no fault of this stunning bird that it is now a Cardinal and no longer a Tanager. No shame - Cardinals aren't too shabby either.

The Western Tanager is sexually dimorphic, meaning in this case that there is a significant difference in appearance between the male and female of the species. The plumage color of the female is the rather unremarkable dull greenish yellow that can be seen in the photo above.

For the most part this bird fancies coniferous or mixed forest of higher elevations, but I can tell you from personal experience that during migration they are no stranger to suburbia either, and an alert lowland birder might see one flashing its brilliant plumage in a residential garden in early Spring.

The Western Tanager is the northernmost traveler of all of its Piranga brethren, breeding as far north as Southern Alaska, where it will hurriedly drop a clutch of eggs and then just a couple of months later scramble southward to beat the cold. Its breeding range varies greatly, with many a bird nesting in warmer climes as far south as the mountains of Baja, California, Mexico. The Western Tanager's territory extends eastward to approximately the edge of the Great Plains.

Piranga Ludoviciana migrates vast distances, wintering through Mexico all the way southward to Costa Rica in Central America.

Although Western Tanagers are primarily bug-munchers, about 20% of the time they also partake of a fruity snack. In the past the notorious sweet tooth of this bird caused it to be accused of destroying orchards, a crime for which it was widely hunted and poisoned as a cherry thief. To the satisfaction of those of us that prefer the beauty of birds to a maraschino cherry atop a sundae, the Western Tanager is now protected against the depredations of vengeful fruit growers. At this time the red list of the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) lists the Western Tanager as a species of least concern, indicating the lowest possible threat level to its continued survival and prosperity.

This alleged orchard raider has achieved more notoriety for its beautiful plumage than for its song, which has been described as being like that of a hoarse Robin battling laryngitis. I will post a link below so you can judge the aesthetic qualities of the Western Tanager's song for yourself.

The nondescript trees on the right shading the van are where my tanagers would make their annual May visits.
The nondescript trees on the right shading the van are where my tanagers would make their annual May visits. | Source

The Western Tanager and Me

It was the 6th of May, 1999 when I first made the acquaintance of the Western Tanager. I am sure of this date because I keep an Excel spreadsheet on my computer that contains my birder's "life list." 1999 was a very good birding year for me because that is when I really started paying attention to avian life, and almost everything flying was going on the list.

The street I was delivering to that day was in an older, rather run down section of town. The neighborhood consisted of deteriorating wooden and brick houses that were built in the fifties before earthquake standards and homeowner's associations came into vogue. I wouldn't call it ghetto, but if the neighborhood could stretch its rickety neck out a little it would see ghetto coming fast just around the corner.

In other words, it was not the kind of place one would expect to see an exotic, colorful bird of lovely, verdant, coniferous mountain thickets that is more accustomed to flitting among the needles and cones of pine trees than bouncing from a woodpile to the rusted out hulk of a car.

Nonetheless, when I first saw the Western Tanager perched atop a termite-eaten picket fence I knew exactly what it was, because photographs and paintings of this picturesque bird grace the cover of many a field guide. In truth it is a hard bird to misidentify, even though in flight its yellow and black pattern can cause it to be confused with an Oriole if the unmistakable red crown is not viewed.

But during the course of that day and the days to come I would get many chances to confirm my identification. Later that day I arrived at a portion of my route bordered by a large vacant lot that I called the Dead End Swamp because during the winter rains it became very marshy. Here in some ficus trees bordering the Dead End Swamp I spotted at least a half dozen tanagers flitting among the dark green foliage, where presumably they were feasting on the orange fruit produced abundantly by the trees in springtime. The tanagers lingered a few days in this locale before they moved on.

The birds continued to make an appearance during the first week of May for the next five years, drawn to these ficus trees either because they felt safe in the thick foliage, they liked the fruit growing on the trees, they liked the bugs eating the fruit, or a combination of all three. Anyhow, I looked forward to the annual visit of the tanagers, but then I got a position in another office and moved on too. For all I know the tanagers are still visiting the Dead End Swamp on an annual basis, and perhaps this coming May I will make a visit there to see if they still stop over on their way to mysterious parts unknown.

I have also encountered the Western Tanager in the coniferous thickets atop Cuyamaca Mountain here in San Diego County, and on the high slopes of Sandia Peak that rises up from the east side of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

I was so inspired by the Western Tanager that I once started writing a novel about one. Somewhere in my garage I still have several spiral notebooks containing about a thousand pages of an unfinished handwritten draft. I eventually gave the novel up as silly and campy, but there may be a story there yet, if approached from a more sophisticated, perhaps darker angle.

Catch a Glimpse of the Western Tanager

Western Tanager Stamp of Approval

I'm not the only one that has been inspired by the Western Tanager and by birds in general, most of whom I first met while lugging the US Mail. There is no doubt that the beauty of birds has awakened artistic impulses in others too, and the beauty of the Western Tanager has inspired aspiring writers, fantastic stamp artists like Robert Giusti, and even musicians. While researching this article I stumbled across works for both the piano and the flute that were composed to mimic the Western Tanager's song.

In my opinion the melody making ability of the Western Tanager does not measure up to its resplendent plumage, but there is something about the bird's brilliant beauty lighting up dim and dusky evergreen groves that inspires poetry in people from the Bering Straights to the Isthmus of Panama.

What about your stamp of approval?

Is the Western Tanager beautiful enough to merit its own postage stamp?

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    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      3 years ago from San Diego California

      Thanks for the tip Svetlana. I have an article pending publication in Bird Watcher's Digest, but I will look into this as well to keep the ball rolling. Thanks for reading, I hope you have recovered

      from that troll atttack. I tried to get your back.

    • kalinin1158 profile image

      Lana Adler 

      3 years ago from California

      Hi Mel! I'm with you - political writing, as well-intentioned as it may be, is exhausting. Not to mention, it attracts Internet trolls.

      So anyway... I don't know if you've heard of this publication, you probably have - it's called "BirdWatching Magazine," and it's a bimonthly magazine for people with an interest in wild birds and bird watching. I immediately thought of you when I saw it in my email list of paid writing gigs. They accept article proposals from freelance writers and pay $400 for most features. They accept submissions on a variety of topics, including “first-person accounts”, birds in the news, hotspots near you, and photo essays. I think you should submit something to them. You obviously have a well of knowledge on the subject!

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      3 years ago from San Diego California

      No mountain lions on my route Mel Roots, just a few lonely cougars LOL. Seriously, being in touch with nature is one of the perks. Thanks for reading!

    • MelRootsNWrites profile image

      Melody Lassalle 

      3 years ago from California

      Interesting article! I love the bird stamps. I don't think I've ever seen a Tanager. They are neat looking birds though.

      A postal carrier must see all sorts of wildlife on their daily route. One of the benefits of an outdoor job, unless it's a mountain lion or something. LOL

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      3 years ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Peggy W. So far my birds hub really hasn't taken flight, so to speak, but I am glad you enjoyed it. I appreciate you dropping in with the nice comments.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      3 years ago from Houston, Texas

      I truly enjoyed your hub about the Western Tanager bird. I used to collect stamps and still to this day save ones coming in the mail. I particularly like colorful ones like this songbird series. You are an excellent writer! I am sure you could do wonders with that novel in the making. Up votes and pinning to my birds board and will also share on HP.

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      3 years ago from San Diego California

      Thank you VioletteRose. I enjoy writing about birds and I hope to get a wider audience for this subject to encourage me to write about it more.

    • VioletteRose profile image


      3 years ago from Chicago

      They are so beautiful :) Enjoyed reading this hub!

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      4 years ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Jamie. These bird stamps are beautiful and probably should be treasured. Doing the research behind the stamp's creators was very interesting for this hub. Thank you for dropping in!

    • jhamann profile image

      Jamie Lee Hamann 

      4 years ago from Reno NV

      I used to collect stamps when I was young. Actually for many years and I think I have a commorative Bird collection from the eighties. I have given my collection to my son, who is only seven and is more interested in destroying it than collecting more, where I have placed it out of his reach until he is older. Nice hub. Jamie

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      4 years ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Deb, I am glad I got a thumbs up from the HP bird guru. Send one of your east coast tanagers our way like a Scarlet and I'll see if I can convince one of my Western pals to make a road trip to the Boomer.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      The sighting of the Western Tanager made me smile, Mel. I have yet to see one, bt when I do, I will probably be reminded of you and this story. Bravo!

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      4 years ago from San Diego California

      It is a fascinating study and once you start you will be hooked! Thank you for dropping in and commenting!

    • DaveOnline profile image

      David Edward Lynch 

      4 years ago from Port Elizabeth, South Africa

      Although I love observing birds flying and their habits, I probably only know a handful of birds names. Thanks for the information in this Hub Mel, I'm hoping to learn more birds names now.

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      4 years ago from San Diego California

      Superficially they look very similar to your Orioles and their dining habits are somewhat similar as well. Thanks for reading!

    • Pawpawwrites profile image


      4 years ago from Kansas

      What a beautiful bird. Glad they are now protected.

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      4 years ago from San Diego California

      Thank you DDE. I cannot take credit for the photo but I am glad you appreciate the beauty of the Western Tanager. Thanks for dropping in!

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      4 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      The photos are beautiful. Birds are indeed different and so interesting. You bring that out here.

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      4 years ago from San Diego California

      Birds are a remarkable world within a world Dana Tate, and it is a pity that no one notices them. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    • Dana Tate profile image

      Dana Tate 

      4 years ago from LOS ANGELES

      Beautiful article. I grew up with birds and your article reminded me of just how much I loved them as a kid.

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      4 years ago from San Diego California

      Thank you AliciaC. Being a brilliant nature writer like you are that means a lot. Congratulations on your award!

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 

      4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I love your strategy of linking bird watching to stamps and the postal service! What a great idea. This is an interesting and enjoyable hub, Mel. I'm looking forward to reading more in the series.

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      4 years ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Sheila Myers, I look forward to writing more bird hubs also because it gives me a break from the complexity and corruption of human existence with a chance to write about a field that is simple and innocent. I appreciate you dropping in!

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      4 years ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Ann for your great comment. Life is more tenacious than we think, and if we just look a little harder at the world around us it is amazing what we discover. Thanks for dropping in!

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Thanks for relaying the information about birds, the stamps, and your birding experiences. I used to collect stamps - still have them but haven't collected any in a while - and I always loved looking at the ones with nature themes. I look forward to reading more of your bird hubs.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 

      4 years ago from SW England

      What a beautiful bird! You've got a great angle for writing about them here. It's a brilliant idea to use the stamp perspective. That way we get to know a lot more about both!

      Love the stamp in the tree!

      I love birds too, especially the birds of prey. Sadly, apart from buzzards around here and the occasional sparrow hawk, we don't see many in the wild. There is a wonderful hawk conservancy not far from here though.

      This is well written, light-hearted and different. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.


    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      4 years ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Dr. Bill. I am very pleased with the positive feedback. Thanks for dropping in!

    • DrBill-WmL-Smith profile image

      William Leverne Smith 

      4 years ago from Hollister, MO

      Beautiful! Love it! Thank you, Mel. Really a neat experience! ;-)

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      4 years ago from San Diego California

      Thank you for your very nice words, Miz Bejabbers, and I hope your postal carrier and the institution of the American postal carrier are around for a very long time, because there are those in Congress who are pushing hard to make us and your six day mail delivery endangered species. Thanks a lot for dropping in!

    • MizBejabbers profile image

      Doris James-MizBejabbers 

      4 years ago from Beautiful South

      This is an innovative and beautiful hub, Mel. I like the way you have worked what could be considered a mundane job into something interesting and innovative. I thought I recognized this bird picture. I pulled out my postage stamps, and yes, I have a set of the songbird series. Perhaps I should say “had” because I’m down to three, the Scarlet Tanager, the American Goldfinch, and the White-Throated Sparrow. The songbirds are so beautiful that I have used them until they are nearly gone and now I must go back and buy more. My favorite is … gosh I don’t know which.

      Thanks for writing about these beautiful bird stamps and for singling out the birds and telling about them. And thank the postal service for printing them.

      P.S. I have to tell you that we love our postal carrier here in our building. He is a happy and friendly man who always speaks, and he holds the elevator door for us. I hope he is here for a long time.

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      4 years ago from San Diego California

      Maybe I have found my ecological niche here on Hub Pages Bill. Birds are sort of a secret passion of mine, but hats off to you for being able to actually raise them and still find time to write. Thanks for the nice words.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      This really is well-written, Mel. You have juggled facts with personal experience and made a thoroughly enjoyable article. Maybe you have found a niche, 'eh?

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      4 years ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Eric. Perfection is a strong word, and I really appreciate your glowing review. If we survive this heat until May keep your eyes peeled out the window for one of these beautiful birds. It might stop in your yard on the way to what is left of Cuyamaca. The fires really gutted that place, but it used to be a beautiful spot to see this tanager and other birds.

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      4 years ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Jodah. The novel is probably hopelessly unreadable now as it rots away in the garage, but if I did find time to give it another whirl I would probably start from scratch anyway. I appreciate the kind words.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      4 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Perfection. The best bird article I have ever read. (perhaps I am tainted by the geographics and my own sitings so nearby) The Stamp part was well done and the carrier perspective gave it a normalcy twist. I look forward to more.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      4 years ago from Queensland Australia

      This is am impressive hub Mel. I like the way you managed to meld an article about the Western Tanager with your Postal Service theme through the stamp series. This was very informative and it's obvious you are very knowledgeable of birds. The pictures and video are great too. I used to collect stamp series especially ones of birds, animals and plants. Well done, voted up. p.s. don't give up on reserecting your novel.


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