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Redstart { Birds of Europe}

Updated on August 1, 2015

Illustration of the Redstart

Familiar wild birds { Swaysland}
Familiar wild birds { Swaysland}

American Redstart

Courtesy of the USFWS
Courtesy of the USFWS


The Redstart,Phoeniarus phoenicurus, belongs to the Passeriformes {perching birds} Order of birds. Its Genus and specific name of Phoenicurus derives from the Greek phoinix meaning crimson + ours meaning tail alluding to the birds red tail. It breeds in Europe north and central Asia and winters in north Africa and Arabia.

In the UK it is on the Amber List of Conservation concern. The main criteria for this addition is losses of between 25-50% in population/distribution during the last forty years or so. In Europe it is classed as 2 concern {declining.} The estimated UK population is 110,000 pairs during the summer. The European population is estimated to be between 1.8 and 4 million pairs.

In America the species is represented by the American Redstart-Setophaga ruticilla.

The Gaelic name for the bird is Earr-dearg. The Welsh,Trigoch, and the Irish Earrdheargan.

The common nmae for this bird derives from the Anglo-Saxon steort indicating a tail.

Here we look at the species its lifestyle and habits with notes and observations written by past ornithologists. As always we commence with a description of the subject under review.

Redstart approaching nest box with food

Wikinature from nl,wikipedia
Wikinature from nl,wikipedia | Source

Description of the European Redstart

The plumage of the Redstart is subject to variation according to season. During the summer the plumage is very striking. The beak is black, except at the corners where it is yellow as is the gape. From the base of the beak towards the eye,and the chin, throat and upper part of the breast, is black, and,the feathers being slightly edged with grey.

The forehead is white,the wings are brown, the outer edges of the feathers slightly lighter. The lower part of the breast, the sides and rump are bright rusty red, and the belly much lighter shading below to a rusty yellow. The neck and back are leaden grey,slightly tinged red. The tail is rusty red,with two brown feathers in the center.

In winter the adult males { and the young of the year after the Autumn moult } are not possessed of the white forehead, the feathers then being edged with brown. The chin, throat and breast are tinged with grey.

The female is duller, a uniform greyish brown pervades the upper part. The chin and throat are a dusky white. The breast is a dull rust colour.The wings are lighter but the tail is not so bright.

The birds are approximately five and a quarter inches long. In relation to its body size the wings are medium/short,tail medium to medium long, the neck short, bill medium/short and the legs medium length. The Redstart has a flitting flight with frequent fly-catching sallies. It hops, and as the curious habit of shivering its tail.

Catching a female redstart Courtesy of Zdenek Moudry

Illustration of the Redstart

Gould Birds of Europe
Gould Birds of Europe

Scottish poet Wilson to the Redstart.

" I could na'see the bonnie bird,

She cower'd sae close upon her nest;

But that saft ither sang I heard,

That lull'd her and her brood to rest"

" Sweet through the silent dawning rung

The pleasure of that lovely sang;

And the avid tower again look'd young,

That psalm sae sweetly stole alang "

General observations.,

Although one of the handsomest of English song birds, the Redstart was little known by name,except to ornithologists in days gone by. Despite the fact that it was not uncommon, especially in certain localities When it was noticed it was often referred to by the country people as 'fire-tail'.

This probably derived from the peculiar manner in which it shakes its tail, which is totally different from the steady up and down manner peculiar to the Wagtails, and various species of Chat. Unless danger is imminent the Redstart does not fly very far, content to move just twenty to thirty yards, before settling once again upon an outer branch. There it will calmly shake its tail.

Many times as I have rambled along a country lane of by a coppice I have noticed the antics of this almost exotic looking species. Many other people would not recognize this species or its nationality. The haunts of this bird also varies,sometimes being a quiet secluded spot, or thickets and hedgerows, or even near to human dwellings,.Ivy grown rocks along with wild commons or poor rocky ground covered with bracken or brambles may also be favoured.

Butler { British Birds with their Nest and Eggs {1896-98} describes an encounter with the bird. " I was examining a tall Hawthorn hedge for nests, when suddenly a small bird appeared out of the field at the back, right in the center of an open part of the hedge,its tail quivering laterally, with a remarkable springing action, quite new to me. At first I wondered what this lovely little creature could be, and, then suddenly, its identity with the Redstart revealed itself. the next minute it had turned and flitted away."

The flight of the bird is somewhat irregular and jerky, and not specially rapid, excepting when the bird is alarmed on in pursuit of prey. When after its prey the bird is particularly active and skillful. The song of the Redstart is uttered either on the wing or when perching, which resembles that of the wren but much more feeble. {also see the birds in captivity below}

Illustration of a Redstart pair.

Birds of Great Britain and Ireland {Butler}
Birds of Great Britain and Ireland {Butler}

Historical Observations.The Birds in captivity.

It should be pointed out, before the start of this paragraph, that it is now illegal to keep wild birds in captivity {or in some cases with a special licence in the UK }, but in by gone days it was not illegal and Bird -catchers made a good living supplying demand }.

According to Swaysland, {1873}, The bird may be kept in a cage or an aviary,where its handsome appearance would immediately attract attention. He concedes that "Redstarts are however, delicate and require artificial heat in the winter, and will seldom thrive unless meat be given and a plentiful supply of meal worms."

One Mr sweet, relates to us of a bird kept in captivity. " It will, even in the state of nature, include the songs of other birds such as the Robin, Lesser whitethroat, Chaffinch, Garden warbler and even the chipping of a sparrow; and where they more hardy susceptible of aviary domestication, there is no doubt that the powers of song could be considerably developed, as in the case of the Canary".

Butler writes, " As an aviary bird, I have found the Redstart particularly pleasing, it is quite hardy, provided that plenty insects can be provided daily, it rapidly becomes very tame and confiding, and is a most ornamental addition to one's feathered family. In September,1893,Mr,Staines brought me an healthy example, which I turned out with the Stonechat and Whinchat into one of my unheated aviaries, disregarding utterly the reputed extreme delicacy of this species."

" The winter thermometer on several occasions registrered 10-12 degrees of frost, nevertheless the Redstart was not in the least disturbed by the cold, but seemed generally at home and happy. Every morning I put a 'demon beetle trap' into the aviary , and the Redstart was the first bird to rush in among the evil smelling captives, seize one and fly off with it. No sooner was the first one swallowed when he was back again for another, and so on until it was empty. He was always actively flying about, and when I put in the saucer of soft food he invariably skimmed over it snatching up a fragment of egg yolk while the saucer was still in my hand."

" If I offered him meal worms or spiders in my fingers it was always the Redstart who snatched first, flying up to the wires and either poising with rapidly fluttering wings, almost like a humming bird, or clutching the wire work with his claws for one second, to ensure a correct aim at the bounty. I found the Redstart rather fond of red and white currents in the early summer, and in the autumn thin slices of apple were pecked to pieces by it., but white butterflies seemed to form its favourite morsels and the astounding manner to which it would swallow one after another {wings and all} was worth the attention of visitors to my collection. One thing I found especially common with every migratory species which I have kept, the Redstart failed to show any access of restlessness as the season of migration approached. Personally I do not believe, for a moment, that any bird in captivity,properly attended to in the matter of food, in an aviary, is even aware that there is a season of migration."

Drawing of a pair of Redstarts

Harmonioa ruralis {1746}
Harmonioa ruralis {1746}

Nest and eggs of the Redstart

The nest is placed in a hole of a wall or tree, or among the loose stones of a fallen wall, or in a nook behind a tree growing against a house or some other building. The nest is loosely constructed of roots and grasses with a few feathers and hairs.

Rev.W.T.Bree mentions a pair which once built under an inverted flower pot which had been left on a gravel path. The birds of course entered by the small drain hole at the top, and much wonder was excited as to how the young birds would emerge from this dark dwelling place. but they were as Rev Bree states " Eventually indebted to female curiosity from their emancipation. A lady lifted the pot to see whether the birds were there; when the whole brood, taking advantage of so favourable an opportunity, made their escape, darting forth in all directions,like rays from a center"

The eggs which generally number 6-7 are almost apple green in colour and are incubated by the female for 13-14 days.While the hen is incubating the eggs her mate watches over her very attentively. At the slightest alarm he keeps up a repetition of loud plaintive notes of warning. Whlie researching for this article I came across the notes of a gentleman who recorded the following narrative. " I became interested in the affection the male bird displayed while his mate was sitting he would sit in a tree near to the nest watching with great anxiety". Some days after it had been thus observed, the narrator to his grief, saw a boy throw a stone at the bird and kill it. " on my going to the place the next day I was surprised to see a male redstart sitting on the very same tree from which, the day before,the other had been knocked down. On my going near the nest, it flew away, with evident tokens of alarm;and on putting my hand to the nest the hen bird flew off. All I need say in addition is, that the eggs were hatched; and the foster father, for such he certainly was,assisted as the male bird usually does, the hen,in bringing up the young brood."

As soon as the tail feathers have reached a desired length the young birds do not stay in the nest, but perch on the branches of a near by tree or shrub, while the parents continue to feed them. The food of the Redstart is almost entirely insectivorous and consists in the main of ants and their eggs, flies, moths, caterpillars, spiders, worms and beetles. As with the flycatchers they pursue flies and moths upon the wing as well as when feeding upon the ground. The young are fed on a similar diet.

The young Redstart resembles a newly fledged Robin which it could be mistaken for,but for the vibration of the tail.



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    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi Deb, yes you are right I noticed the similarity too. Best wishes to you.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      6 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Such a wonderful overview. It does look so much like the American Robin.

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      hi Eddy, thank you for your usual encouraging comments, so glad you enjoyed it. Your visits are always welcome. Best wishes to you.

    • Eiddwen profile image


      6 years ago from Wales

      Another wonderful creation by you DAL.As always I loved it and again learnt so much. Voted up and here's to so many more to come.


    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hello Devika , I am delighted that you enjoy these hubs my friend., and if they keep your attention, that is a huge compliment. Thank you also for vote up and interesting,useful and beautiful, it means so much. Once again I have to thank you for being the first to visit. Best wishes to you.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      6 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Incredible hub Restart looks a beautiful bird and you always manage to keep my attention on your all of your hubs. I enjoyed learning more here about this unique bird and of its character. Voted up, interesting, useful and beautiful.


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