For the Birds Radio Program: Painted Redstart

Original Air Date: Sept. 15, 1995

After getting people interested in the American Redstart last time, today Laura Erickson keys in on its fancy American cousin. 3:45

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Southeastern Arizona is the premier birding spot in the United States, with an abundance of bird life, including scores of species not found anyplace else this side of Mexico. But every silver lining has its cloud. After we come home from a trip to Arizona, our beautiful redstart suddenly looks rather drab. As the moon disappears when the sun comes out, American Redstarts fade when their exotic relative, the Painted Redstart, enters the scene. This little warbler, its red belly feathers as intense as a Scarlet Tanager’s, set off by shining black and glowing white, is one of the showiest of tropical beauties. Unlike most warblers, Painted Redstart females are identical to males, and babies develop the vivid plumage their first fall molt. And the Painted Redstart’s tameness in allowing us close approaches makes it one of the most treasured of all fancy birds.

Many exotic Arizona birds, like Montezuma Quail and Elegant Trogon, are secretive, and the only visitors who find them are knowledgeable birders or very, very lucky. But during spring and summer, Painted Redstarts are hard to miss, spreading their tail and wings to show off the flashy pattern.

On the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union’s Arizona trip last month, we saw Painted Redstarts five out of nine days, and many stayed conspicuously close at hand for many minutes at a time. They’re most abundant from mid-April through August. Some winter in mountain canyons, especially near houses with hummingbird feeders, but most migrate into Mexico and Central America.

When my husband Russ and I went to Arizona in early April, 1982, we hit the Painted Redstart migration head on. They were everywhere–at any and all elevations, in every habitat except desert. This trip we found them at the tail end of their breeding season. Many were feeding fledglings, and one poor unfortunate pair fed an enormous cowbird. With babies to raise, they stick to their primary habitat, Sierran Madrean pine/oak woodlands, near streams. Many popular canyons for tourists happen to be great for redstarts-­ especially Madera, Ramsey, and Cave Creek Canyons. It makes sense that a quality bird should recognize quality habitat.

They eat a myriad of insects usually close to or below eye level, often on stumps and fallen trees, and are surprisingly fearless of humans. Their genus name, Myioborus, comes from the Greek myia for a fly and borus for devouring greedily–and these greedy bug-eaters key in so well on bugs that they seem not to notice us at all.

For many decades, the Painted Redstart was classified in the same genus as the American Redstart, but then was separated into another genus, perhaps to avoid uncharitable comparisons between the two. The current trend, not sanctioned by the American Ornithologists’ Union, is to call it the Painted Whitestart, which makes some sense because its wings and tail flashes white rather than red. It doesn’t much matter to me–That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, and that which we call a Painted Redstart by any other name would be just as beautiful.