American Redstart

American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla), male (Dover Publications)
American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla), male. Photo: Dover Publications

I learn something that startled me. When I went on a Warbler Walk a couple of weekends ago, I learned that the American Redstart and the Red-eyed Vireo were once the most common birds in Philadelphia and the rest of Pennsylvania.

I think House Sparrows and Starlings hold those titles now (just kidding).

Why the decline? The main causes are the usual line-up of suspects with habitat loss leading the pack. The preferred habitat of American Redstarts and all wood warblers is wooded habitats often near water. The American Redstarts I saw a couple weeks ago were in a forest 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.

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. But this little bird winters in Central America and warm island places like Jamaica.

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.

So, if Redstart habitat fragmentation and destruction in both North America and Jamaica, it is apparent why these birds are no longer the presence in the great numbers they once were.

A little About the Bird

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 we were out and about in the woods last weekend, I think we all suffered 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 American Redstart is grouped with the Wood Warblers. Wood Warblers are generally small birds that live in thick to semi-open woodlands, to marshes, swamps and forest edges.

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”.

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 an during migration.

A common foraging technique of the Redstart is to flush invest 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.

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.

It is always a special day when I see American Redstarts.

American Redstarts on All about Birds

Bird Photo from North American Birds in Photographs CD-ROM and Book (Dover Electronic Clip Art)

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