Western Tanager and the Morning Cup

This morning while I was sipping my morning coffee in the backyard, a Western Tanager dropped from the sky into a corner of our little pond.  No matter how many tanagers I see in my life, I will never cease to be startled by their glowing presence.  Western Tanagers are bright yellow with black wings, two vivid wingbars, and a face that has been dipped in cherry-red crayolas.


I called Claire–this would be the first tanager she’d seen this year.  “Oh!” she gasped, “It looks tropical!”  Then she covered her mouth and laughed.  “Oh yeah–it is tropical.”  Western Tanagers migrate from Mexico, Central, and South America to build their nests and raise their young in our coniferous forests.  This bird was stopping for water and a short bath, before continuing onward to choose its summer breeding place.   Such migrants will continue to pass through our yard until mid-June.

2525728973_e9d48fbc2fThe related migrant on the east side of the country is the Scarlet Tanager.  Its entire body is covered with the same red as the Western Tanager’s face.  On both birds, it is a startling color that seems to be lit from beneath.  Thoreau referred to the Scarlet Tanager in his diary as the Fire-Never-Redder bird, recalling an acquaintance who, on seeing a tanager for the first time, exclaimed “fire never redder!” and promptly fell in a ditch.

The Western Tanager is one of the many birds that benefit from our choice to drink shade-grown coffee, and I smiled over seeing one in the midst of my morning cup.   In Mexico, avian censuses in coffee monocultures (a modern growing method foisted on farmers in developing countries by “first world” corporations) show that they support only four or five species of birds.  Traditional shade-grown coffee plantations of the same size, with their multistory forest-like plantings protecting the shade-loving coffee shrub, support up to 140 species, including many of the migrant birds–thrushes, warblers, tanagers–that grace our gardens each spring.  (If you have any friends who remain shade coffee skeptics, that’s an astonishing statistic to share!)  As deforestation continues in these birds’ tropical homes, and here in their breeding areas, shade coffee growers provide much-needed habitat and refuge.  (Our current favorite local roaster:  Tony’s in Bellingham.  Their Cafe Carmelita is pure heaven).

The tanager is the avian poster-child for the Seattle Audubon Northwest Shade Coffee Campaign.   The campaign logo features the artwork of local artist and activist Ed Newbold, who couldn’t be more generous in sharing his talent with the community.


Yummy coffee, shining bird, such far-flung wildness right here in my little urban garden.  Winged migrants remind us that our own map-drawn lines mean so very little.  Instead, it is our beautiful, almost unfathomable interconnectedness that rings far, sacred, and true.


  1. Irene

    I will always remember each Spring waiting for this bird to arrive for a drink and bath in our backyard sanctuary. The females, though less colorful, are beautiful as well.
    We love Tony’s coffee!

  2. Elizabeth

    Thank you for a beautiful post. I also watch the birds in my back yard while drinking my morning coffee and I enjoyed the weaving together of two of my favorite past-times. Lovely photos.

  3. Emily

    Lyanda, after reading this post the other evening, I then had a dream that I was out walking and saw dozens of tanagers (only they were bigger than actual size). In my dream I thought, ooh I’ll have to tell Lyanda about this. So I am! Sweet birds.

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