Agent Orange

I was out walking around the yard last weekend, looking for some random something to photograph, when a flash of color in the edge of the woods caught my eye. It was bright orange and quickly resolved itself into a bird. At first, I thought I was looking at an Oriole. But it almost immediately registered that its head wasn’t black, so nope, not an oriole.  The body shape and size, combined with the black wings and tail, told me I was actually looking at a Scarlet Tanager, albeit an oddly colored one. And instead of the typical crimson red you would expect from a Tanager, he was freaking orange.

Most first year Tanagers are a mix of red and yellow as they molt into adult plumage for the first time. But those birds have a patchwork look to them, where this one was just nearly unbroken orange. Consulting the all-knowing oracle (Google) introduced me to the “orange variant” of the Scarlet Tanager, something I’d never heard of in 30-plus years of birding. Personally, I don’t think I’d go so far as to designate it an official “variant.”

Like most creatures—I wanted to say “all creatures” but there’s undoubtedly an organism out there that would make a liar of me—Scarlet Tanagers are not homogenous. They come in a wide range of color shades, from orange to deep crimson and this bird (and other “orange variants”) just happens to fall on the orange side of the scale, instead of the expected “normal” red. My gut feeling tells that this was a first-year bird that didn’t develop the patchwork look, but I’ve got zero evidence to back that up.

Sadly, even though I couldn’t see any obvious injuries, I don’t think this was a healthy bird. He was on the ground when I first noticed him and he never flew, not once, as I walked towards him. He kept a safe buffer between us, not allowing me to get close, but he remained on the ground and eventually hopped into the woods. I figured he had enough to worry about and left him to his business. Hopefully, I was wrong about his health, but I don’t believe I was.

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