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American Redstart

Setophaga ruticilla ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: PARULIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

A lively warbler that hops among tree branches in search of insects, the male American Redstart is coal-black with vivid orange patches on the sides, wings, and tail. True to its Halloween-themed color scheme, the redstart seems to startle its prey out of the foliage by flashing its strikingly patterned tail and wing feathers. Females and immature males have more subdued yellow “flash patterns” on a gray background. These sweet-singing warblers nest in open woodlands across much of North America.

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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
4.3–5.1 in
11–13 cm
Wingspan
6.3–7.5 in
16–19 cm
Weight
0.2–0.3 oz
6–9 g
Relative Size
About the size of a Black-capped Chickadee or Yellow Warbler.
Other Names
  • Petit du Feu, Paruline flamboyante (French)
  • Candelita, Pavito migratorio (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • Like the Painted Redstart and other “redstarts” of the Neotropics, the American Redstart flashes the bright patches in its tail and wings. This seems to startle insect prey and give the birds an opportunity to catch them. Though these birds share a common name, they are not closely related to each other. In fact, there are other unrelated birds around the world—such as the fantails of Australia and southeastern Asia, and other redstarts of Europe—that share the same foraging tricks.
  • Young male American Redstarts have gray-and-yellow plumage, like females, until their second fall. Yearling males sing vigorously in the attempt to hold territories and attract mates. Some succeed, but most do not breed successfully until the following year when they develop black-and-orange breeding plumage.
  • The male American Redstart sometimes has two mates at the same time. While many other polygamous bird species involve two females nesting in the same territory, the redstart holds two separate territories that can be separated by a quarter-mile. The male begins attracting a second female after the first has completed her clutch and is incubating the eggs.

Habitat


Forest

American Redstarts breed in moist, deciduous, second-growth woodlands with abundant shrubs, across much of the eastern and northern United States and southern Canada. Its habitat is often situated near water, and includes alder and willow thickets, thickets in treefall gaps within old-growth forest, fencerows, orchards, and mixed deciduous-coniferous woodlands. Redstarts favor interior woodland over edges, and prefer large tracts of habitat measuring at least 1,000 acres in area. In the western part of their range they use riverside woods, thickets, and coniferous forest. They spend the winter in low- to mid-elevation forest habitats in southern Florida and California, as well as in southern and western Mexico, Central America, northern South America, and the Caribbean. Their wintering habitat includes mangroves, shade coffee plantations, citrus plantations, wet forest, scrub thickets, and even isolated trees in residential urban areas.

Food


Insects

American Redstarts feed mostly on insects, including leafhoppers, planthoppers, flies, moths and their larvae, wasps, and beetles. In late summer they also eat some small berries and fruits, such as barberry, serviceberry, and magnolia. They forage between the ground and near the top of the canopy, taking most of their prey from twigs, branches, and leaves. They fan their tails and droop their wings, showcasing the orange-and-black or yellow-and-gray “flash patterns” of their plumage, presumably to startle prey and flush it from vegetation. American Redstarts take more flying prey than most other warbler species, and they compete with other flycatching species (such as Least Flycatcher) for the same prey. Individuals usually forage alone but may stay near their mates, and they sometimes join mixed-species flock in the nonbreeding season.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
1–5 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
0.6 in
1.6 cm
Egg Width
0.5 in
1.2 cm
Incubation Period
10–13 days
Nestling Period
7–13 days
Egg Description
White or creamy with blotches of brownish or reddish; some are so speckled that they are nearly brown all over.
Condition at Hatching
Helpless, with closed eyes, and naked except for downy tufts of feathers on the head, neck, and back.
Nest Description

The female builds the nest by herself in about 3-7 days. The nest is a tightly woven cup of small fibers, such as birch bark strips, grasses, milkweed seed hairs, animal hairs, feathers, rootlets, leaves, lichens, twigs, mosses, pine needles, and wasp nest paper. The nest measures 2–3 inches across and 2–3 inches high on the outside, with an inner cup about 2 inches across and 1.5 inches deep.

Nest Placement

Tree

The male shows the female potential nest sites during the early stages of courtship. She tests out many sites by settling into them and moving around, and finally chooses one. The nest is usually supported by the main trunk of a tree or shrub and a few other vertical stems, and well camouflaged by foliage. Common nest trees include maple, birch, ash, hawthorn, alder, eastern white cedar, cherry, balsam poplar, and willow.

Behavior


Foliage Gleaner

Males defend their territory boundaries with songs, posturing, and aerial displays, including one display in which they fly in circles near each other. Female sometimes defend the territory against other females. Two birds may strike at each other or even grapple with their bills and feet, though they rarely hurt each other. Both the male and the female bring food for the nestlings. Though normally monogamous, the male may start singing to attract another mate once his first mate has finished laying eggs. He spends more effort providing food for his first nest than for his second. Once the chicks leave the nest, the parents divide up the chicks for feeding duty: the female feeds certain chicks while the male feeds the others. Foraging adults may be preyed on by raptors such as Sharp-shinned Hawks, while eggs and nestlings are vulnerable to climbing mammals, snakes, and birds such as Blue Jays, Common Ravens, Gray Jays, Common Grackles, Northern Saw-whet Owls, Cooper’s Hawks, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

American Redstarts are common and their populations are stable overall, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. However, in the U.S. portion of their range (which accounts for about one-fifth of the population) redstarts declined by an estimated 1.4 percent per year from 1966–2010, which corresponds to a cumulative decline of about 46 percent in that time. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 39 million individuals, with 81 percent breeding in Canada, 19 percent spending some part of the year in the U.S., and 13 percent wintering in Mexico. They rate a 10 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are not on the 2012 Watch List. Like most nocturnal migrant songbirds, American Redstarts can be killed by colliding with structures such as skyscrapers, cell-phone towers, radio antennas, and wind turbines.

Credits

Range Map Help

American Redstart Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Long-distance migrant. Redstarts breeding in eastern North America travel to Florida, the Greater Antilles, and northern South America, while those breeding in central and western North America migrate to Mexico and Central America.

Backyard Tips

In late summer, redstarts visit plants with small berries and fruits, such as barberry, serviceberry, and magnolia. Planting these in your yard may help attract them.

Find This Bird

In deciduous woodlands, American Redstarts are fairly conspicuous compared to other small birds of the leafy canopy and subcanopy. They are seemingly hyperactive, repeatedly dashing through trees and bushes after unseen insects, or prancing along branches, rapidly spreading and closing its black-and-yellow or black-and-orange tail. Males sing their sweet, explosive songs frequently during spring and early summer. American Redstarts are common spring and fall migrants in the East. It is a later spring migrant (arriving in May in much of the U.S. and Canada) and a mid-season fall migrant (September-early October).