By Lewis Young
Although a member of the large family of wood-warblers that are sometimes difficult to tell apart, American Redstarts have distinctive color patterns and behavioral traits that make them relatively easy to identify. Adult males are glossy black with bright orange patches on wings, tail and sides. The belly and under the tail are white. Adult females are gray-olive above with white underparts and yellow patches on the tail, wings and sides. The birds are about 5 ¼ inches long with a 7 ¾ inch wingspan. Immature birds resemble adult females. American Redstarts flit about very actively and often hold their tail and wings partly spread as if to show off the patches of color. The name Redstart is derived from the male’s “red” (actually orange) tail markings. The “start” in the name comes from Anglo Saxon steort, for tail. American Redstarts have a variable song that may be described as a series of high, thin notes usually followed by a wheezy, down-slurred note. Their call is a clear, high, squeaky chip.
Habitat preferences include moist second growth deciduous forest, mixed woodlands, and thickets such as willow or alder. They will nest in the deciduous trees and shrubs that regrow following fires in coniferous forests. Streamside riparian deciduous trees and shrubs often provide suitable habitat. The female picks the nest site, usually in the fork of a tree or shrub, 4 to 70 feet off the ground, although ground nests have been recorded. The nest is an open cup built by the female and consists of bark, grass, rootlets, and other plant fibers, with a lining that is usually made of feathers and hair. The outside may be camouflaged with lichen and bark, and the whole nest is held together with spider webbing.
The male displays to the female during courtship by fluffing plumage, raising crown feathers, spreading wings and tail, and bowing. Males perform a frequent boundary display flight toward rivals by flying out with stiff wing beats and gliding in a semicircle back to a perch. Two to five eggs (typically 4) are laid that are off-white in color with brown or gray marks. Incubation is done only by the female and lasts 11-12 days. Both parents feed the young, who leave the nest at about 9 days old. Nests are often parasitized by brown-headed cowbirds. The male American Redstart occasionally has two mates at the same time by holding two separate territories up to 500 m (1,640 ft) apart. The male starts to attract a second female after the first has completed her clutch and is incubating the eggs.
American Redstarts forage very actively and often fly out to catch insects in midair or hover to take them from foliage. This flycatching behavior is one clue in identifying them. Their diet is mostly insects such as beetles, caterpillars, moths, leafhoppers, and aphids, but they will occasionally eat spiders, berries, and seeds. It is believed they flash their tails and wings to startle insect prey. They sometimes hold large caterpillars and moths in the bill and bang them on the perch before eating.
Widespread, as their summer range includes eastern and northern US, and southern Canada, American Redstarts may be seen nearly anywhere in the lower 48 states during migration, but they winter almost exclusively south of the US inCentral America, theWest Indies, and northernSouth America (in Spanish they are called “candelitas”). A few do winter in the very southern regions of California, Texas and Florida. They are very rare vagrants to westernEurope. The birds migrate mostly at night, with the fall migration beginning early, often in August. During migration, they may be found in areas outside the summer range and this is when they may eat foods other than insects more often.
Although American Redstarts are still widespread and common throughout their range, they have experienced declines in many regions. Some of these declines may be from habitat loss due to natural maturation of forests, but others may be directly or indirectly related to habitat degradation from fragmentation. Fragmentation creates more edges, which initial