Birds of Brooklyn: American Redstart
The American redstart (Setophaga ruticilla) is one of the most common warblers in the United States. The bird is a spring and fall migrant in our area and breeds in parts of New York City. The “start” in its name is from the old English word steort, meaning tail. The “red” is descriptive of the adult male’s reddish- orange tail and flanks. It is called the “American” redstart because it is native to North and South America and also to distinguish it from a European bird called the common redstart.
It takes about two years for a male redstart to develop its black body and reddish tail colors. Females and immature males have a gray body and yellowish tail and are sometimes referred to as “yellowstarts.” In Arizona and parts of Texas, two other redstarts, the slate-throated redstart and the painted redstart, are present. These birds have no red in the tail and sometimes are referred to as “whitestarts”, because they do have white in their tails.
The redstart’s tail has a very specific purpose. As it hops along, the bird continually flashes its tail to flush insects out of hiding in the leaves. It then chases and catches them in mid-air in the same manner that flycatchers hunt. It’s an effective strategy. The redstart catches more flies than any other warbler and also eats a great variety of insects, unlike other warblers, which rely almost exclusively on specific insects like the spruce bud worm. The redstart also eats berries.
Most warblers make their nests on or very close to the ground. Not this species. The redstart’s preferred habitat is secondary forestland, where its nest can be found in the low, middle, or high canopy. In one area on Long Island—Hither Hills State Park—you can walk about one mile and see as many as 50 redstart nests.
The American redstart, along with the yellow-rumped warbler, yellow warbler, and common yellowthroat, are four of the most common warblers in the U.S. Fall migration, starting around the middle of August, is an excellent time to see redstarts in our area. Places in the city like Central Park or Prospect Park—or even Brooklyn Botanic Garden—are good spots to catch glimpses of this bird. People often say they have a hard time identifying fall warblers, but this one is pretty distinctive. Watch for its flashing tail as it “drips” down from a branch in pursuit of its insect prey. Remember, for the American redstart, it’s all about the tail.