For the Birds Radio Program: American Redstart

Original Air Date: Sept. 13, 1995

Today Laura Erickson talks about a colorful warbler called the American Redstart. 3:33

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One of the most beautiful and delicate of all birds is the tiny American Redstart. Warblers are famous for their high activity, and this third-of-an-ounce package of restless energy flits about more persistently than any of its relatives, sometimes snatching four or five insects in mid-air in a single flight. A redstart shows off its exquisite plumage to best advantage during aerial maneuvers, constantly fanning its tail and fluttering its wings to flash intense orange or yellow. The brilliant colors of wintering redstarts brighten the shadows of lush tropical forests, inspiring Cubans to call it “Candelita,” which means “little torch.”

Female and immature male redstarts are gray or brown and yellow, while adult males are the colors of Halloween–orange and black. Actually, few stick around to celebrate the spooky holiday. Most migrate out of the Northland in September, and virtually all are gone by mid­ October. The latest on record in Minnesota was seen on a November 13, and in Wisconsin on November 26. But even if it’s possible to see a redstart on Halloween, it’s hardly a spectral vision. Quite the opposite, this exuberant sprite embodies the joy of living in a way that even the friendliest little ghost could never do. No matter what the activity–hunting, eating, drinking, bathing, chasing off competitors, hissing at predators, courting, or mating–a redstart does it with gusto, passion, and speed.

Even the redstart song is speedy–a short little ditty that males sing well into August and sometimes even September, long after most warblers have packed up their instruments for the season. These restless creatures apparently get impatient singing the same thing over and over, so they develop three or more personal songs, some buzzy, some sweet, some rather ordinary. As soon as you think you’ve mastered the redstart repertoire, up pops one singing something entirely new. So redstart songs are deceptively tricky to learn. They’re also one of the only warblers with singing females. This was hard to prove since one-year-old males look like females, but ornithologists collected –that’s a polite way of saying they shot–singing redstarts and dissected them, proving that some of the songsters have well-developed ovaries. The breakneck speed at which redstarts rush through their lives doesn’t seem to lessen their longevity as long as researchers keep them out of their gunsights. Banded redstarts have survived well over five years.

On migration we can see dozens of redstarts flitting about together, but they’re highly territorial on their breeding grounds. In one odd case in 1904, Claire Wood reported finding two pairs of redstarts sharing a single nest, which contained three eggs from one pair and four from the other. Females took turns incubating, and all four apparently fed the young in perfect harmony. If even redstarts can figure out how to get along like this, perhaps there’ s hope yet for people.