American Redstart

Setophaga ruticilla


Early Spring Date: April 23
Late Spring Date: June 1
Most Frequently Seen: May 12-22

American Redstarts are one of the most common warblers at Monticello Park in the spring, especially during the third week in May. Redstarts breed in the Washington metro area, but not at Monticello Park. They prefer to nest in deciduous and mixed woodlands, often near water.

Where to See Them in the Park

Redstarts move around quickly while feeding in bushes or low in trees, often hovering and spreading their tail. They frequently go into the stream, and some display "obsessive compulsive behavior" — after they come out of the stream and preen, they sometimes re-enter the stream and go through the entire process again.

Physical Description


American Redstart Male
Male - Photo by Ashley Bradford

The adult male American Redstart is the blackest-looking warbler. He has orange markings, some of which are in the tail.

American Redstart Female
Female - Photo by Michael Pollack

Females are mostly gray, with yellow patches on their sides and at the base of the tail. The yellow on their sides sometimes extends across the breast. They have a narrow broken white eyering and show a yellow patch on the wing. American Redstarts have one of the biggest differences in plumage between males and females of any warbler species who visits Monticello. Because the females look so different, they are sometimes called "yellowstarts". Young redstarts are also lumped into the yellowstart category.

American Redstart 2nd-year Male
Second-year Male - Photo by William Young

Some yellowstarts who visit Monticello in the spring are second-year males who have patches of black feathers. The patches occur due to molting, which is the process by which birds replace their feathers. Being a second-year bird is not the same as being more than a year old. If a bird is born during a particular year, it becomes a second-year bird the following January 1st. In their second year, some warblers conduct a partial molt before or during migration to their breeding grounds. This molt includes some of their body feathers, but not their flight or tail feathers. Growing wing and tail feathers requires a lot of energy, so young birds preparing to migrate wait until after the breeding season to replace them. The yellowstarts with black patches are males born in the previous year who have molted some of their hatch-year feathers and have grown some black adult feathers. These males will not look like adults until after their first full molt, which takes place after the breeding season in the year after they are born. Most warbler species do not show as much difference between the plumage of young birds and adults as redstarts do. One way bird banders can tell the age of warblers who do not show significant plumage variations is to examine the wear on flight and tail feathers. If these feathers are very worn, the warbler is probably a second-year bird who did not replace the feathers the previous fall.

American Redstart Rictal Bristles
Rictal Bristles - Photo by William Young

Rictal bristles are little hair-like feathers next to the bill. Most warblers have them, and they are useful for species such as redstarts who do aerial hawking of insects. The bristles frame the mouth and help the redstart to feel where insects are.

Vocalizations

The song of the American Redstart shows great variation and cannot be easily represented by a mnemonic. One method to recognize some redstart songs is by length — if you count to five quickly, the song is roughly that long. A common redstart song goes ZEE-ZEE-ZEE-ZEE-o, with the last syllable dropping off.

Hear the vocalizations of the American Redstart.

Notes

Orange has been considered a separate color for only about 500 years, and it was named for the color of the fruit. Orange things have often been described as red, such as red hair or redstart. In The Clements Checklist of Birds of the World, 6th Edition, twelve other New World warblers are called redstarts. Only one of the others is regularly seen in the United States, and none are in the same genus as the American Redstart. Redstart means "red tail". In Warblers of the Americas, a 1994 identification guide to all of the New World warbler species, the other redstart species are called whitestarts, which is more accurate. They all have white in the tail, but not red.

Origin of Names

Common Names: The word "American" distinguishes it from the Common Redstart in Europe. Redstart means "red tail". The American Redstart reminded people of the Common Redstart, who has a reddish-brown tail that it often flashes. The Common Redstart is one of the Old World flycatchers, who are not related to the either the New World flycatchers or New World warblers.
Genus Name: Setophaga means "moth eating".
Species Name: Ruticilla means "red tail".

American Redstart video footage

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