The Regional Review

Volume VII - Nos. 1 & 2

July-August, 1941



A flash of red followed by a quick flutter of beating wings tells the Guides at Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky, that Pete, the summer tanager (Piranga rubra rubra) has returned once again. Peering down from his perch on the corner of the guidehouse, Pete must know that his arrival has attracted the attention of tourists and natives as well. One of the guides quickly produces a lunch biscuit or crust and he will immediately be singled out by the crimson beggar. Hopping from his perch down to the food-laden hand, Pete quickly falls to. He is entirely oblivious to the clustered visitors, snapping cameras or excited children closely surrounding him. After eating furiously for several minutes he chirps a sharp note, interpreted by the guides to mean, "thanks" and flies off.

Each year, about April 20th, since 1938, Pete has returned to his favorite nesting tree at the Mammoth Cave Hotel. Once returned, he visits his never-failing food supply at the guidehouse several times each day all during the summer. About the 20th of September and for week a or so thereafter, his appearances become more frequent and his appetite gets stronger. Well fortified with this week of concerted feeding, Pete makes one farewell call before migrating southward late in September.

Pete with Roe Estes

The widespread appeal and popularity of the tanager is not entirely due to his brilliant color or to his unbelievable tameness, but also to his timetable arrivals and departures and his many humorous antics. His yellow-colored mate frequently follows him to the guidehouse, but she has never become bold enough to eat from the hand. However, Pete gallantly carries large mouthfulls of bread up to her perch on the telephone lines and patiently feeds her piece by piece. In his four years of visiting and begging, Pete has lead several of his young to the guidehouse. They, too, are too timid to be fed by anyone except their dynamic father. When the young birds have grown old enough, or at least until Pete thinks they are old enough, they are apparently told that it is time that they should learn to shift for themselves. If they persist in trying to cut in on their father's food graft, they are none too gently chased away. Other envious birds, similarly inclined, are more violently dispersed. Pete's low crouch, ruffled head feathers and impatient shifting of feet are unmistakable signs that he is angrily watching some would-be intruder.

Finally, it may be pointed out that although the summer tanager is quite common in the protected confines of Mammoth Cave National Park, other cases of such tameness and persistence of appearance have not been described. The hundreds of people who have seen and photographed Pete as he feeds from the hand all bear witness to the remarkable behavior of this particular summer tanager. IT would be quite interesting to hear from any others who have observed similar or any other unusual bits of behavior on this species.

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Date: 04-Jul-2002