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American Redstart

By Ranger Steve Mueller

American Redstart. Photo by Ranger Steve Mueller.

Flamboyant. From tree branches this beauty displays glistening black with flaming red orange under its wings. The American Redstart is a third the size of a Red-winged Blackbird. An eye glint announces pride as its bill opens with song bursts. Its black back and folded wings conceal orange red that is seen from a front view. A splash of red glows like hot coals midway on black wings. The base of the tail radiates the same warm color. 

When I explore forests, red pigmented feathers capture my eye among its black plumage. Even the bill, legs, and feet are black. The only variance from black and red is its white belly. Females look similar to the males but the red is replaced with yellow. 

The redstarts fill a nature niche primarily in large contiguous forests where it pursues flying insects instead of hunting in small woodlots. It behaves like flycatchers by darting from branches to capture aerial insects. In the forest, with high activity it hovers among vegetative growth seeking spiders and insects in trees and shrubs.

Second growth forests of maple and aspens create suitable habitat and allow for redstart abundance provided the trees stands remain extensive. The need for large contiguous forests prevent it from nesting in urban areas. We most frequently enjoy them during migration when they stop to feed among town’s dispersed trees. 

In the late 1800s it was abundant throughout southern Michigan but was displaced when forests were harvested and replaced with agricultural farms. Now nesting is reduced in southern Michigan but it is one of the most abundant warblers found in northern Michigan. 

Optimum viewing in our areas is along extensive forested floodplains or in forests bordering Lake Michigan. Farther north it occupies both moist and dry maturing deciduous forests with woody understory growth. The redstart utilizes a greater habitat variety than more specialize warbler species. We get to enjoy its occurrence more frequently than many other warblers because it flits about trees in state parks and campgrounds.

It comes into view when darting after flying insects. Watch for its behavior of tail spreading that exposes the flaming color at its base. Like the warm season, this bird spends limited time with us. Encounters are mostly during spring and fall migration. During its spring travel, explore woody understory vegetation among branches before new leaves fill the habitat and conceal the bird. 

After settling in extensive woods, nests are constructed from 5 to 30 feet high in trees and sometimes higher. I have yet to discover one. It amazes me how difficult it is to locate nests but nesting success would be low if they could be easily found. Nests are built in tree branch forks toward the outer canopy.

Active northward travel in our area is primarily during May. By the end of the month breeding and egg laying begins. The first half of June is occupied with incubation so they are not as commonly viewed. One egg is laid daily until they have a clutch of 4 eggs. Then incubation commences. If nesting is successful, young are fed insects and spiders rich with protein. Growth is rapid and young fledge the nest before the end of June. When a nest is lost to predators or weather, a second brood results with young leaving the nest in July. 

Brown-headed Cowbirds patiently watch adults to locate nests and lay their larger egg in the nest near a forest edge. The redstart will feed the cowbird young that hatches rapidly and is large enough to get most of the food. Redstart nestlings frequently do not survive in parasitized nests. Greatest chances for nest success are in the interior forest because cowbirds typically avoid deep woods. Cowbirds are an open habitat species.

Fall departure for adults and young begins in August with the largest numbers moving to Mexico, Central America, and northern South America in September. Active insects abound in warm winter climates where redstarts reside while most of us nestle down for the cold months in our homes. 

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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