by Darcy Thomas
Sometimes a common bird is so startling it captures our imagination and washes us with a feeling of such pure delight when we take time to observe their beauty and special behavior. One such bird for me is the American Redstart. American Redstarts Setophaga ruticilla are small, lively wood warblers who are abundant in a broad geographic range of North America. Their striking looks and energetic behavior make them quite conspicuous. Males are mostly coal black with rich orange patches on the wings, sides, and tail and a white underbelly. Females are just as striking but are mostly gray with soft yellow patches in the places where the males are orange, with an olive rinse on their backs and white on the throat and underbelly. They are about the size of a Black-capped Chickadee. Once you observe the whirling, twirling acrobatic flight of the American Redstart you will find them to be unforgettable. Their foraging and communication behaviors are eye-catching as they flash their orange and yellow patches by fanning their tail and spreading their wings to flush insect prey from vegetation as well as to communicate among other Redstarts. Their proportionately large wings and long tails facilitate the flight maneuvers that make them so adept at pursuing insects. Redstarts also have well-developed rictal bristles around the gape of the mouth that may serve to help them capture insects in flight or at least assist the bird to know its speed and orientation in the air. This noticeable behavior along with their enthusiastic singing, especially during the breeding season, makes them easy to find. Look for them in deciduous woodlands often in the lower canopy. Their constant movement, dashing and pirouetting through the trees, make them fun to watch.
The song of the male American Redstart is explosive but sweet to the ear during the breeding season. Some people liken their song to a sneeze – tsit tsit tsit tsit-achoo! Females have a variety of calls and both genders will snap their bills – males doing this during territorial disputes and females while courting males. You may be lucky enough to find a nest that the female has made of firm, compactly woven plant materials and lined with fine grasses, hair, and feathers and tucked up against the main trunk of a tree or shrub. She often will decorate the outside of the nest with lichens or birch bark and bind them with spider silk. She chooses the placement of the nest site after the male shows her the potential sites during courtship displays. She will sit on each site, settling down into it with her breast and moving about, to determine which one suits her best before she begins building the nest. In Montana nesting begins in late May to early June with 1-5 eggs laid. Renesting may occur if the first nest is unsuccessful and up to six nests may be made in a single season to increase the likelihood of successfully fledging a brood. Only the female sits on the eggs. The male sometimes will feed the female while she incubates the eggs. This is more likely to happen in colder climates such as Montana and allows the female to incubate longer.
Once the female has begun incubating her eggs the male will often court another mate and establish another breeding territory out of earshot from the primary territory. He spends more time providing food for the chicks of the first nest than the second. But while both parents feed the chicks on the nest the parents divide the brood up after they fledge with the mother feeding certain chicks and the father feeding the rest. They do this until the fledglings can feed independently. American Redstarts eat insects but will also eat some small berries and fruits in late summer. They capture more flying prey than most other warbler species and are even able to compete with flycatchers for the same prey.
American Redstarts are preyed upon by raptors while they forage and by climbing mammals such as squirrels when they nest. Chicks and fledglings are preyed upon by climbing mammals, snakes, and some birds such as Blue Jays, Common Ravens, Gray Jays, Northern Saw-whet Owls, and Cooper’s Hawks.
Redstarts breed throughout most of Canada, Montana, and a few other areas of the far Northern States and most of the Eastern United States. They winter in Florida, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. Migration is nocturnal and Redstarts often join mixed flocks such as chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers, and other warblers.
Redstarts are unlikely to be interested in your bird feeders, but they may enjoy your birdbath where they will come for a drink. Since they change their diet in late summer to include berries and small fruits you may be able to attract them to your yard by planting native plants such as serviceberry. They may also eat suet with berries in it.