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Tangara cayana

Burnished-buff Tanager

  • Order: Passeriformes
  • Family: Thraupidae
  • Polytypic 7 Subspecies

Authors: Carlson, David, and Kevin J. Burns



The Burnished-buff Tanager (Tangara cayana) is a medium-sized member of the genus Tangara. Its name refers to the shiny yellow coloring that dominates much of its plumage. Other characteristic features are its black face mask and blue-green wings and tail. The Burnished-buff Tanager is similar to several related species of Tangara (see Similar Species), but is distinctive within its geographic range (Ridgely and Tudor 2009).

Similar Species

Despite a high degree of intraspecific variation (see Geographic Variation), T. cayana usually can be easily distinguished from other species throughout its geographic range. In northeastern Colombia, the distributions of Burnished-buff and Scrub (Tangara vitriolina) tanagers approach one another (although these species are not known to be sympatric, and are generally are separated by elevation). The two species can be differentiated by the Scrub Tanager’s duller, greenish plumage, and by its more well-defined rufous crown (Restall et al. 2007a, Ridgely and Tudor 2009). Burnished-buff Tanager also is similar to the Green-capped Tanager (Tangara meyerdeschauenseei) of the Andes of southeastern Peru and northwestern Bolivia, although again these two species are not known to occur together at the same sites. The Green-capped Tanager differs by its greenish-buff crown, greenish turquoise auriculars, and bluer (male) or greener (female) upperparts.


The male’s song is notably squeaky and high pitched. It consists of two elements, a down-slurred tsweek and a staccato tsit (Isler and Isler 1987, Perlo 2009). These two sounds alternate for three to five seconds, while increasing in both tempo and volume. As the song reaches its conclusion, the tempo increases to such a degree that the song becomes trill-like in nature (Isler and Isler 1987). This has the effect of sounding like multiple individuals are singing at once (Sick 1993). Calls are described as a squeaky tsweek or an abrupt tsit (Isler and Isler 1987).

Recordings of the Burnished Buff Tanager can be found at the Macaulay Library and at xeno-canto.

Nonvocal Sounds

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Detailed Description (appearance)

The following description refers to nominate cayana; see also Geographic Variation.

Adult male: The crown is cinnamon-rufous, which contrasts with the glossy yellow that covers its back, lower breast, belly, flanks and undertail-coverts (Isler and Isler 1987, Restall et al. 2007b). The throat and upper breast are saturated with blue-violet (Hilty 2003). The male also possesses a characteristic black mask that runs along each side of the face, through the eyes and cheeks. The remiges and rectrices are edged with  with pale blue (Restall et al. 2007b). Depending on the lighting and the angle of view, the Burnished-buff Tanager’s plumage may exhibit a yellowish-brown opalescence (Cherrie 1916).

Adult female: The plumage coloration resembles the male’s, but generally is more muted. The female’s plumage may also be infused with light green shading (Isler and Isler 1987). Additionally, the throat and upper breast lack the male’s splash of violet (Ridgely and Tudor 2009).

Juvenile: Duller in coloration. The back, nape, wings and tail are muted brown, with a tinge of light green or blue-green. Much of the rest of the plumage is dingy yellow (Restall et al. 2007a).

Bare Parts

Iris: dark brown (Cherrie 1916)

Bill: Maxilla black; mandible dark gray (Cherrie 1916)

Tarsi: bluish gray (Cherrie 1916)


Total length: 13-14 cm (Isler and Isler 1987), 14 cm (Hilty and Brown 1986)

Morphometric data for T. cayana and some of its close relatives (Schulenberg and Binford 1985): 

  n Wing chord (mm) Tail (mm) Tarsus (mm)  Culmen from base (mm)  n Mass (g) 
T. meyerdeschauenseei, male  1 79.1  59.8 18.3 14.3  1 26.5
T. meyerdeschauenseei, female  3  73.6-76.3 (75.0) 55.5-58.9 (56.9)  17.5-17.9 (17.7)  14.7-15.4 (15.0)   1  25.4
T. vitriolina, male   5  72.9-77.0 (74.9)  52.1-56.9 (54.0) 16.2-17.9 (17.0)   14.4-14.7 (14.6)  4  20.2-24.6 (22.5)
T. vitriolina, female   4  75.3-76.5 (75.6) 54.6-55.6 (55.0) 16.7-18.8 (17.5) 13.7-15.2 (14.6)  1  21.1
 T. cayana, male  5 70.9-73.8 (72.5)   50.6-53.8 (52.0)  16.5-17.6 (17.1)  13.9-14.9 (14.1)  3  17.0-19.0 (18.0)
T. cayana, female   4  68.6-72.7 (70.6)  47.6-52.3 (49.2) 16.7-18.0 (17.2)   13.8-14.3 (14.1)  3  19.0-22.5 (20.3)
 T. cayana flava, male  10  70.0-77.0 (73.5) 47.6-57.2 (51.7)   15.7-18.3 (16.5) 13.3-14.8 (14.2)   -  -
 T. cayana flava, female  3  71.0-72.7 (71.7)  49.0-53.3 (51.3) 15.5-18.9 (17.4)  14.5-14.9 (14.7)   -  -
 T. cucullata, male  10  72.9-78.5 (75.4) 50.1-54.6 (52.4)   17.7-20.0 (18.9)  14.7-16.7 (15.7)  -  -
T. cucullata, female   10  69.6-77.0 (73.3) 49.5-53.5 (51.2)   17.1-19.3 (18.3)  14.5-16.1 (15.3)  -  -

Mass, both sexes: mean 18 g (range 15.2 - 22.5 g; n = 30; Isler and Isler 1987)

Mass, male: mean 18.8 g (range 17.0 – 20.3; n = 4; Haverschmidt 1952)

Mass, female: mean 18.0 g (range 17.0 – 19.0; n= 2; Haverschmidt 1952)


In general, most tanagers only molt once a year (Isler and Isler 1987), and this prebasic molt likely occurs after breeding (Isler and Isler 1987, Ryder and Wolfe 2009). Many species, however, have been found to breed in sub-adult plumage (Isler and Isler 1987).  In many species of Tangara, the preformative molt is partial (Ryder and Wolfe 2009).  More specific data on molt is not available for Tangara cayana.

Geographic Variation

Seven subspecies of T. cayana currently are recognized (Storer 1970, Isler and Isler 1987, Clements et al. 2010), which can be divided into the southeastern flava group (five subspecies), and the northwestern cayana group of two subspecies (Schulenberg and Binford 1985, Ridgely and Tudor 2009). One of the major features that differentiate the cayana and flava groups is that the latter has black extending from the mask into the chest and upper belly, while the black on the former is confined only to the mask (Zimmer 1943, Ridgely and Tudor 2009). T. c. cayana and T. c. chloroptera represent the extremes in variation that exist between the cayana and flava groups (Isler and Isler 1987). The following is a description of each subspecies.

cayana group:

cayana (Linnaeus 1766); type locality Cayenne

Occurs from eastern Colombia east to the Guianas, northern Brazil and eastern Peru (Storer 1970).
See Detailed Description.

fulvescens Todd 1922; type locality Palmar, Boyaca, Colombia

Occurs on both slopes of the eastern Andes of Colombia (Storer 1970). Similar to nominate cayana, but larger and paler (Todd 1922).

flava group:

chloroptera (Vieillot 1819); type locality Brésil

Occurs in southeastern Brazil and in Paraguay.

This subspecies is large in size (Hellmayr 1929), with the male’s black mask extending through the throat, chest and into the upper belly. The crown and back are buffy in color, while the underwing-coverts are blackish. The female is considerably duller than the male, with olive-green shading on the back (Isler and Isler 1987, Ridgely and Tudor 2009).

flava (Gmelin 1789); type locality northeastern Brazil

Occurs in northeastern Brazil, from Maranhão to southern Bahia (Storer 1970).

Similar in size to chloroptera, but its coloration is generally darker (Hellmayr 1929), and its underwing-coverts are a whitish-yellow color (Isler and Isler 1987).

sincipitalis (Berlepsch 1907); type locality Leopoldina, Rio Araguaya, Goiás, Brazil

Occurs in central Brazil in Goiás (Storer 1970).

This subspecies possesses a distinctive yellow-brown frontal band, and the back has a silvery green tint (Hellmayr 1929). 

margaritae (Allen 1891); type locality Chapada, Matto Grosso, Brazil

Occurs in Mato Grosso, central Brazil (Storer 1970).

Similar to chloroptera (Isler and Isler 1987), but its back more closely resembles the silvery green of sincipitalis (Hellmayr 1929).

huberi (Hellmayr 1910); type locality Cachoueira, Rio Arary, island of Marajó, Brazil

Occurs on Ilha Marajó, Pará, Brazil.

This subspecies is intermediate between cayana (cayana group) and chloroptera (flava group). The underparts are similar to chloroptera, but the black is a duller shade; the flanks are undertail-coverts are similar to cayana (Isler and Isler 1987). The female of this subspecies also has blue wings and tail (Isler and Isler 1987).


Also known as the Rufous-crowned Tanager (e.g., Meyer de Schauensee 1964, Haverschmidt 1970), the Burnished-buff Tanager is a member of the genus Tangara, which is nested within the family Thraupidae. Due to the abundance and diversity of the species in Tangara, Isler and Isler (1987) use geographic, morphological and behavioral data to divide the genus into thirteen species groups. Under this system, T. cayana is placed with the Scrub Tanager (Tangara vitriolina), the Black-backed Tanager (Tangara peruviana), the Chestnut-backed Tanager (Tangara preciosa), the Lesser Antillean Tanager (Tangara cucullata), and the Green-capped Tanager (Tangara meyerdeschauenseei) into their Species Group 8. This grouping is distinguished primarily by similar physical features and a preference for open habitats (Isler and Isler 1987).


Phylogenetic data based on DNA sequences confirm that this collection of species forms a monophyletic group (Burns and Naoki 2004, Sedano and Burns 2010). Within this clade, however, the relationships are somewhat murkier. The Burnished-buff Tanager, the Scrub Tanager (T. vitriolina), and the Lesser Antillean Tanager (T. cucullata) form a clade that is strongly supported; however, relationships within this clade are not strongly supported. The fact that there is not strong support for the Burnished-buff and Scrub Tanagers as sister taxa may seem surprising given that some researchers have hypothesized that they may be conspecific (Hilty and Brown 1986, Isler and Isler 1987).


Some researchers suggest that the two major subspecies groups of Burnished-buff Tanager, the cayana and flava groups, are divergent enough to be recognized as separate species (Ridgely and Tudor 1989). In south central Brazil, the Burnished-buff Tanager hybridizes occassionally with the Chestnut-backed Tanager; this hybrid combination originally was described as a separate species, Arnault’s Tanager  (Tangara arnaulti) (Isler and Isler 1987, Naoki 2003). Note that the Burnished-buff and Chestnut-backed tanagers are not sister taxa; instead, the Chestnut-backed Tanager is sister to the clade made up by the other Group 8 species (Sedano and Burns 2010).

Recommended Citation

Carlson, David, and Kevin J. Burns. 2012. Burnished-buff Tanager (Tangara cayana), Neotropical Birds Online (T. S. Schulenberg, Editor). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; retrieved from Neotropical Birds Online: