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The Natural History and Captive Care of the Blue Gray Tanager

Thraupis episcopusBlue is an uncommon color in the avian world, and even more so among those birds that are kept in captivity.  When blue does occur, it is usually quite startling – Blue Jays, for example, rarely fail to draw attention; in fact, a co-worker reported that a pair had long been the star attraction of the Moscow Zoo’s Bird House.  Today I’d like to introduce one of the few “all blue” birds available to hobbyists in the USA, the Blue Gray Tanager, Thraupis episcopus. 


Blue Gray Tanagers are classified in the family Thraupidae, members of which range throughout North, Central and South America.  Many, such as the Scarlet Tanager (please see photo), are brilliantly colored.  US hobbyists may not keep native species, but the Blue Gray is legal, and captive-bred specimens are often easy to find.


Blue Gray Tanagers range from southern Mexico to northern Bolivia and Brazil.  Introduced populations are established in Lima, Peru and (of course!), southern Florida.  An extra-bright blue race, endemic to Tobago, has been given subspecies status.


Scarlet TanagerThey favor open habitats bordered by brushy cover or trees – forest edges, farms and parks.  Confiding to the point of being bold, these 6-inch-long beauties adapt readily to human presence.  Well known and much loved throughout their range, they are often given local nicknames – i.e. “Blue Jean” on Trinidad and Tobago.

Captives: My Experience

A fearless personality suits the Blue Gray Tanager well to captive life.  Those I cared for in a large mixed-species aviary were always first on the scene at feeding time, sometimes alighting on the food pan before I had put it down.  In time, 2 individuals fed from my hand; rarely have I kept such active, alert birds.


They will adapt to a large indoor cage, but really show to their best advantage in an outdoor aviary.  There one can enjoy watching their breeding behavior and ceaseless quest for insects.

If given a dry shelter, Blue Grays can easily tolerate temperatures of 60 F or so; some reportedly keep them outdoors in much colder weather.


Blue Grays feed largely upon insects and fruit.  A diet packed with a variety of both is essential if you are to succeed with this species; please do not attempt to keep them unless you are able to meet their needs.  I’ve always maintained insect traps, such as the Zoo Med Bug Napper, to help round out the diets of the tanagers under my care. 

These little fellows fare well on a mixed fruit salad (papaya, banana, berries, orange, kiwi, pear, peaches and many others) coated with insectivorous bird food (please write in for sources), Softbill Select and Egg Food.  Hard boiled egg and some nectar should be offered regularly.

Live katydids, crickets, spiders, sow bugs, beetles, flies, moths, mealworms, waxworms and other invertebrates must be provided on a daily basis.  Please see my articles on Collecting Insects and Canned Invertebrates for information and ideas.


Blue Grey TanagerOutdoor housing, at least during the warmer months, is almost a pre-requisite for successful breeding.  A cup-shaped nest is built in heavy cover for the 2-3 eggs.  The chicks hatch in 14 days and fledging occurs on day 14-20.  Insects are essential if the young are to survive.

Further Reading

Blue Gray Tanagers at the National Aquarium

This Video illustrates why these tanagers are so highly desired.



Thraupis episcopus image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by The Lilac Breasted Roller

Blue Grey Tanager image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Daniel Demczuk


  1. avatar

    Hello I just built an aviary 15ft long 11ft wide and 7.5ft high. I have placed tanagers in it. 1.1 Paradise, 1.1 Opal Rumped, 1.1 Turquoise, 1.1 Burnished Buff, 1.1 Green and Gold and 1.1 Green Honeycreepers. I haave a waterfall and several trees and hanging plants. Will this be a good set up for them to breed. The Turquoise, Opal Rump and Green Honeycreepers are the trouble makers.

    What’s good to feed them?

  2. avatar


    Sounds like a great set-up; will take close monitoring, as you’ve seen, but worthwhile I’m sure. I feed as described in the article, please let me know if you need further info, best, Frank

  3. avatar

    Hi Frank,

    I hope that you can help me out here, I found once of these guys in my backyard but I’m not sure if it’s a baby or just injured. Currently the bird is in my care since it can’t fly but I’m not sure how should I take care of it. Any advice?

  4. avatar

    Hello Krissy, Care of young or injured birds is quite specialized and best undertaken by an experiences wildlife rehabber of vet; please let me know your location and I’ll try to refer you to someone, ;offer some of the foods mentioned and keeping the bird warm and quiet until then, best, Frank

  5. avatar

    Sure, I’m located in Trinidad. It’s eating the fruits I offered it quite fine, and it’s been responding okay with the frequent jumping about. Thanks for the help

  6. avatar

    Sounds good… much better that it is on it’s own rather than a fledgling; had the injury been serious, the bird would likely have declined rapidly. Enjoy and please keep me posted, Frank

  7. avatar

    Update: After observing , it seems like the left wing may in fact be broken, and it’s safe to say it’s fairly young bird since it can feed on it’s own. I think you’re right about it not being too serious since it’s health seems to be fine. I’m going to try to take it to a vet tomorrow to just determine to extent of the wing’s injury so I’ll get you posted. Thanks again : )

  8. avatar

    Thanks, Krissy,

    I hope all goes swell, good luck and let me know if you need anything, Frank

  9. avatar

    Any thoughts one what kind of bird house might work for these guys? They a fairly common species down here in Bolivia. Any thoughts on size of the entrance hole, size of the house, and height to place it at? My boys want to set up bird houses for them.

About Frank Indiviglio

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I believe that I was born with an intense interest in animals, as neither I nor any of my family can recall a time when I was not fascinated by creatures large and small. One might imagine this to be an unfortunate set of circumstances for a person born and raised in the Bronx, but, in actuality, quite the opposite was true. Most importantly, my family encouraged both my interest and the extensive menagerie that sprung from it. My mother and grandmother somehow found ways to cope with the skunks, flying squirrels, octopus, caimans and countless other odd creatures that routinely arrived un-announced at our front door. Assisting in hand-feeding hatchling praying mantises and in eradicating hoards of mosquitoes (I once thought I had discovered “fresh-water brine shrimp” and stocked my tanks with thousands of mosquito larvae!) became second nature to them. My mother went on to become a serious naturalist, and has helped thousands learn about wildlife in her 16 years as a volunteer at the Bronx Zoo. My grandfather actively conspired in my zoo-buildings efforts, regularly appearing with chipmunks, boa constrictors, turtles rescued from the Fulton Fish Market and, especially, unusual marine creatures. It was his passion for seahorses that led me to write a book about them years later. Thank you very much, for a complete biography of my experience click here.
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