For the Birds Radio Program: American Redstart

Original Air Date: Sept. 2, 1998 Rerun Dates: Sept. 24, 2004

American Redstarts are filling Laura’s eyes, and her soul, with joy and beauty. (Date verified)

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I spent this past weekend with at least a dozen or so American Redstarts. We’re at the height of warbler migration, and these fiery little sprites filled my backyard with sparkles and splashes of color for four days. Any time I went out with my puppy Photon, there they were. I got to see adult males looking like miniature orioles, adult females with lemon yellow and gray instead of orange and black, and first year males with darker, brownish-gray and orangey yellow. As if to show off these brilliant colors, redstarts flare out their tails and droop their wings in animated fashion as they flit through the trees, eating insects as they move along. In Latin America where they spend half their lives, they are known as “candelitas,” or little torches. But colorful and animated though they are, redstarts’ tiny size still renders them fairly inconspicuous. They’re about 5 inches long and weigh only one third of an ounce—a five-pound newborn baby would balance 240 of them. So although the, y are one of the most common of all warblers and are easily recognized, they aren’t as well-known as they should be.

Pleasing observant birdwatchers is hardly the only reason redstarts are so active. When they flit out from a shrub or tree, chances are they’re catching insects. These lovely little creatures live on animal protein, which they get by gleaning caterpillars and other crawling insects from leaves, and snapping moths, mosquitoes, and other flying insects in mid-air. Because they have more than one technique for catching their prey, they live on a wider variety of insect species than most warblers, perhaps contributing to the greater number of redstarts compared to other warbler species. Their nesting requirements are broad, too–their nests have been found in trees and shrubs from 4 to 70 feet up, though 10 to 20 feet is the norm.

Redstarts build their nests from a variety of plant fibers, from grasses to birch bark. They festoon the outside of the nest with bits of birch bark and lichens and bind the whole thing with spider silk. This strong fiber allows the nest to stretch as the 4 or 5 nestlings grow without being crowded out, even if one of the babies happens to be an enormous cowbird. Redstarts are one of the most common of all cowbird victims, in part because they nest in the same openings and second growth that cowbirds also prefer.

Many fall warblers are confusing, but not redstarts. They are pretty and engaging, and this is a great time to look for them. At one point this past weekend, I looked out my living room window onto the London Road traffic and saw a perfect adult male just inches from the glass. A vision like that now and then is what keeps the human soul—at least my personal human soul— filled with faith that something in the universe is going exactly the way it should.