eWestern Birds

The Quarterly Journal of Western Field Ornithologists

Vol. 53, No. 1
February 2022
Western Field Ornithologists

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Diet-Related Plumage Erythrism in the Western Tanager and Other Western North American Birds
Jocelyn Hudon and Peter Pyle

ABSTRACT: Consumption of the berries of two exotic bush honeysuckles (genus Lonicera) containing the red carotenoid pigment rhodoxanthin has resulted in abnormal erythristic plumages in several species of birds in eastern North America. Here we report 12 examples of plumage erythrism in the Western Tanager (Piranga ludoviciana), in both live birds (5) and museum specimens (7), that we suspect have the same etiology. The erythristic tanagers feature overtly orange to red feathers variously scattered on the head, rump, wing coverts, and/or underparts, areas of the plumage normally colored by carotenoid pigments. All were in their year of hatching, so the reddened feathers, including replaced median coverts with orange tips, represent formative plumage grown on or near the breeding grounds where berries containing rhodoxanthin are available. By contrast, adult Western Tanagers undergo body molt primarily in the Mexican monsoon region in fall and on their winter grounds in early spring where bush honeysuckles are nonexistent. We also report examples of Red-breasted Sapsuckers (Sphyrapicus ruber) with anomalous red pigmentation on their backs and of Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) with orange tail bands, as previously documented in the East. In these species, the reddened areas are typically yellow or green, colors based on carotenoid pigments that can be altered through the consumption of fruits containing rhodoxanthin. We conclude that these reddened feathers are the result of the consumption of honeysuckle berries or possibly the red arils of the Pacific Yew (Taxus brevifolia), representing a first report of diet-related erythrism in western North America.

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