National Geographic : 1935 Apr
THE TANAGERS AND FINCHES* Their Flashes of Color and Lilting Songs Gladden the Hearts of American Bird Lovers East and West BY ARTHUR A. ALLEN Professor of Ornithology, Cornell University AUTHOR OF "BLACKBIRDS AND ORIOLES," IN THE NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE ROSO, our Indian hunter, was obviously excited. He was familiar with most of the birds in the rain forest which caps the central Andes of Colombia, where we were camped, and he knew of our in terest in any new or rare species. Whenever he discovered any bird strange to him, his natural reticence gave way to captivating enthusiasm. Silently we stole down the dank trail through the moss-covered oaks until we came to a clearing where stood a large tree in full bloom with inconspicuous, greenish white flowers. If the flowers were incon spicuous, the birds which flitted through the branches certainly were not. COLORS FLASH LIKE JEWELS There were bright-green cotingas with red faces, others with heavenly blue backs and flashing yellow breasts; there were iri descent Callistes, other tanagers of several varieties, and honey creepers and humming birds that flashed like jewels. But all these we had seen before and had learned to expect in the flocks that frequented the treetops of this temperate area near the Equator. Where, then, were the wonderful new birds that Roso had discovered? "Look!" Roso pointed his finger toward a smaller tree as a flash of yellow and black and red marked their presence. To my eye they were no more brilliant than the tree full of chatterers and honey creepers, but to Roso they were "new birds," wonderful in their yellow bodies blending into red on their heads and set off by black wings and tails. They were tropical tanagers of a kind so similar to our own western tanagers (Plate II) that at first I thought some of these must have strayed southward from their winter quarters in Costa Rica instead * This is the eleventh article, illustrated by paint ings by Maj. Allan Brooks, in the important GEOGRAPHIC series describing the bird families of the United States and Canada. The twelfth article, with paintings in color by Major Brooks, will appear in an early number. of going north into the United States. I told Roso that they were merely some of our birds from the North. "Ah," he exclaimed, "we have many lovely birds here in the Tropics, but when your birds come down from the North they are so much more beautiful!" Previously I had explained to him how the little redstarts and the yellow and the Blackburnian warblers, which he knew as winter visitors, passed the summer with me in New York. He could hardly be blamed for thinking of the United States as having the most beautiful birds, even though we in the North are equally certain that all the most brilliant birds live in the Tropics. Roso had never seen any of the birds illustrated so beautifully by Major Brooks in this issue of THE GEOGRAPHIC, except the summer tanager. Although the scarlet tana ger and rose-breasted grosbeak do pass the winter in northern South America, they wear a dull plumage like that of the female during the nonbreeding season; the summer tanager alone, for some reason, remains red throughout the year. The other species of tanagers and finches, herein shown (such as the cardinals and pyrrhuloxias), either do not migrate at all or, at best, do not go farther south than Central America. Could Roso have seen one of these plates brought to life, I am sure I could not have convinced him that any of his birds were more beautiful, such a glamour do we spread over the unfamiliar. THERE IS NO BLUE PIGMENT IN COLORS OF BIRDS It will not be surprising if many readers, on looking over these pictures, ask why there is not a more tropical setting to the paintings, or if all these lovely colors exist on our own birds. "Look! An indigo bunting!" We direct a friend's glance to the telegraph wire where we have heard a familiar song and see a well-known figure with its head thrown back and its bill open.