While on a warbler walk years ago, I learned that the American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla) and the Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus) were once the most common birds in Philadelphia and the rest of Pennsylvania.
Once I learned that the Redstart was once one of the most common birds, I began to imagine Redstarts as common as American Robins. The current state of the American Redstart population is stable. There are so many of these birds and they range over an extremely wide area. They range over much of North America, Central America, the West Indies, parts of Eurasia and Africa.
I think any decline is where the bird is found. The American Redstarts is a wood warbler. Wood Warblers are generally small birds that live in thick to semi-open woodlands, marshes, swamps and forest edges. They like to be near water. Philadelphia provided plenty of forest interior and waterside sites in the past. This is has changed a great deal. I think if I lived in a more wooded or forested area, I would probably see more of the birds.
The American Redstarts I’ve seen were in forests with several ponds and streams nearby. When forests and woodlands are cut down, American Redstarts lose their homes. And the fragmentation of wooded areas leads to an increase in predators which like to hunt along habitat edges. Cowbirds seem to target warblers as foster parents for their large, hungry offspring.
When to See the American Redstart
The American Redstart is a common breeding bird in the northern plains states and areas east of the Mississippi River in North America and in the Philadelphia Region. The American Redstart can be seen in Pennsylvania during the breeding season. They are found here from mid-April until late October. A few stragglers may stay in our area into January, which isn’t very cold anymore.
But this little bird winters in Central America and warm island places like Jamaica. It’s a neotropical migrant.
I when I see the American Redstart I am so hypnotized but the bright and pretty colors of the male, that I forgot to snap a few photos. Not that I could anyway. Like all warblers, these little insect eaters are fast. Warblers always seem to be “hepped-up” on caffeine. Never staying in one place, and hopping from tree, to trunk to leaf pile, and on and on.
When I go birding, many of us in the group suffer from “warbler neck”. This condition results in a tired head and chest area, as your neck and head are jerked around repeatedly. On warbler treks, people loudly whisper, “Where is the bird?” I can’t see it?” “I hear it, but oh, wait, maybe there are two.” Every warbler walk I have gone on goes like this.
The male is sports the flamboyant black-and-orange plumage on tail patches and wings.The females have a gray-green head and olive-brown upper body. The underparts are a clear white. Touches of yellow are on her shoulder, wing and tail patches.
The striking orange and black patterns are bright in full view, but serve to camouflage the bird among the shady, leafy branches, the bird’s prime foraging places. The local common name for the American Redstart in Central America is “candelita” meaning “little candle”.
What They Eat
American Redstarts are mainly insectivorous, feeding on insects plucked from leaves, twigs and bark. The bird will also feed on nectar and small fruits in winter and during migration.
A common foraging technique of the Redstart is to flush insect prey into the open by flashing the color on its tail patches and wings. As the startled insects flee the American Redstart follow in hot pursuit, often catching insects in mid-air like a flycatchers.
Attracting the American Redstart
If you wanted to attract this bird to your backyard habitat, bird garden or naturalist garden, it seem the best way is to plant plants that attract insects. Native oaks, cherries, plums, birches, crab apples, blueberries and other species that provide food for insect larva are a good start. Having those trees in a leafy neighborhood or near a woods would greatly increase your chances of seeing the American Redstart in your home garden.
Offering water is always a good option. Put out drinking water in water feeders. Keep a swallow birdbath filled with water for bathing.
The Song of the American Redstart
It is always a special day when I see American Redstarts. As the breeding season is underway and you walk in the woods, keep an eye out for this beautiful and wide ranging bird.
More on Warblers