Black redstart: the bird profiles

Hannah
Hannah
Hannah
Hannah

I am particularly interested in garden wildlife which is why I did my Master's degree with a focus on "animal ecology". I am convinced that beneficial insects and wildlife are a sustainable and effective alternative to many of the products we use on our plants. I am also a passionate birdwatcher and rarely go for a walk without my binoculars.

Favourite fruit: kiwi, apple and redcurrant
Favourite vegetables: tomatoes and green beans

What is the difference between a black redstart and a common redstart? How do you tell male and female black redstarts apart? And how do you recognise their offspring? Here’s everything you need to know about the black redstart.

Black redstart perching on a rock
The black redstart in all its glory [Photo: Weblogiq/ Shutterstock.com]

Few bird species like to come as close to humans as the black redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros). Once cliff dwellers, these birds have adapted very well to human habitats and are found in towns, villages and gardens. Early in the year, if you get lucky you can hear the black redstart’s characteristic song resounding from rooftops and can see young redstarts hopping across lawns. Unfortunately, with fewer than 100 breeding pairs in the UK, black redstarts are on the Red List of Birds of Conservation Concern, unlike their much more common relative, the common redstart. Read on to find out more about black redstarts, including how to distinguish them from common restarts, how to tell males and females apart and how to support this endangered species in your own garden.

Black redstart: key facts

SizeAbout 14 - 15 cm
WeightUp to 20 g
Breeding seasonMay - June
Life spanAbout 5 years
HabitatOpen and semi-open landscapes, settlements and cities
DietInsects and spiders
ThreatsDecline in food and habitat

How to recognise the black redstart

The black redstart is recognisable by its bright rust-coloured tail, as the name suggests (start means tail in Old English). Apart from an off-white panel on the wings, their plumage is rather dark. Male black redstarts, being almost jet black, especially on the face and breast, are darker than the females. These birds like to perch on roofs or other elevated structures and sometimes even hover in mid-air – similar to hummingbirds. 

Black redstart on stone
The red tail is what gives this bird its name [Photo: FJAH/ Shutterstock.com]

What does the black redstart’s song sound like?

The black redstart’s song is distinctive and quite unique. It begins with a short series of high, loud notes, then changes to a clipped warble and ends with a few trilling final notes, “Ti-ti-ti-ti-krrrsh-shrr-tli-tli-li”.

Aside from its song, the black redstart also has a call for when it is excited or in danger: “Si”, “Fid” or “Tek-tek-tek”.

How to recognise a juvenile black redstart

Juvenile black redstarts are uniformly grey-brown in colour, resembling adult females. The red tail is also already clearly visible, allowing the young birds clearly to be identified as members of this species. 

Young black redstart on roof tiles
Young redstarts are still somewhat inconspicuous [Photo: Yuriy Balagula/ Shutterstock.com]

How to identify a black redstart egg

The female black redstart lays four to six white eggs per clutch, each about 2 cm in size. The cup-shaped nest is made of densely packed plant stems, leaves, moss and other plant fibres. The eggs are laid deep inside the nest which is padded with feathers and hair. 

Five white eggs in nest
Black redstarts lay four to six eggs per clutch [Photo: matunka/ Shutterstock.com]

How to tell male and female black redstarts apart

Black redstart females and males are easy to tell apart. Females are much lighter than males and have a grey-brown plumage. The only feature that clearly identifies them as black redstarts is the red tail, but even this is sometimes only visible when they are in flight. During the breeding season, however, there can be some confusion between juvenile and female black redstarts. Juvenile black redstarts look very similar to the females, regardless of gender.

Female redstart
Female black redstarts can also be recognised by their rust-coloured tail feathers

How do black redstarts differ from common redstarts?

While black redstarts are much less common than common redstarts in the UK, both species can be found here. As the name ‘redstart’ suggests, both species have rust-coloured tails. Aside from that, they are fairly easy to differentiate. In male common redstarts, the rust colour of the tail extends up to the breast, making them much lighter in colour than the black redstarts. Common redstarts also have a bright white eye stripe. Females are a little more difficult to distinguish, but female common redstarts are generally lighter in colour than their relatives and have a slightly red belly.

What is the perfect habitat for black redstarts?

Black redstarts live in open and semi-open landscapes, inhabiting a wide range of places, from high mountainous regions to villages and towns. If there are no rocky structures available to nest in, they will also accept man made nesting sites such as quarries, buildings and walls. They only really avoid densely wooded areas.

Where do black redstarts build their nests?

Black redstarts naturally breed in rocky landscapes in natural niches or caves. Nowadays, however, the majority of black redstarts live close to humans, as seen in Germany, where the population is far greater than in the UK. There they can be seen nesting in wall niches, holes in facades and a variety of other structures such as letterboxes. The female alone selects the nesting site and builds the nest. The size of the nest is dependent on the conditions of the nesting site. 

Black redstart nest in letterbox
A black redstart nest in a letterbox [Photo: matunka/ Shutterstock.com]

When is the black redstart’s breeding season?

The black redstart’s breeding season starts in May and usually ends in June. The breeding period lasts about 14 days and breeding pairs usually have one or two broods. On top of building the nest, the female also takes on the task of incubating the eggs. Once the young birds hatch, they stay in the nest for another two weeks. During this time, they are fed by both parents. Even after they have learned to fly, the fledglings are still supported by the parents for up to three weeks before they are left to fend for themselves.

Where do black redstarts spend the winter?

Though they are generally a rare sight in the UK, black redstarts have been spotted here year round. While these small songbirds tend to migrate towards the Mediterranean and spend the winter mainly north of the Sahara, some spend the winter in the coastal regions of the UK.

Black redstart in flight
Black redstarts fly south in winter [Photo: rubacolor/ Shutterstock.com]

Help the black redstart!

Black redstarts are amusing birds that never tire of singing and like to perch on fences and other free-standing structures. On the off chance that you happen to live somewhere with some black redstarts nearby, here are some tips on how to make your garden more attractive for these birds.

What do black redstarts eat?

Black redstarts mainly eat insects and spiders, but they will also occasionally feed on berries and other fruits. They like to look out from elevated places and swoop down on their prey from above. However, they also hop through low vegetation in search of small, ground-dwelling animals. They also sometimes do what is known as a hovering flight, which is where the birds hover in the air and pick insects off trees, walls or rocks.

Black redstart with insect
Black redstarts are insectivores [Photo: Adrian Eugen Ciobaniuc/ Shutterstock.com]

Even though black redstarts are a rare sight in the UK, designing an insect-friendly garden is beneficial in more ways than one. Aside from providing many garden birds with food, an abundance of insects also helps with pollination and preventing pests. A meadow of flowers also provides an entire habitat for a variety of small garden animals.

Which nesting boxes are suitable for black redstarts?

Black redstarts prefer not to nest in nest boxes but will use them if other nesting opportunities are lacking – so you can place a nest box in your garden for them if you like. Even if these birds do not use them, there are plenty of other birds that will gladly use a nesting box. Black redstarts prefer so-called open-fronted nest boxes, which have a large entrance opening at the front. If you have old buildings or walls on your property that have a hole or two, you might like to consider leaving these unfilled – the redstarts will thank you. 

Open-fronted nesting box in tree
Black redstarts feel at home in half-open boxes like this [Photo: Brian Clifford/ Shutterstock.com]

Tip: Building a nesting box yourself is not overly difficult and is a fun crafting activity for the whole family.

What else can you do to help support black redstarts?

To create an insect-friendly and therefore bird-friendly garden, it is always important to keep toxic substances away. Refrain from using chemical sprays and, if possible, promote environmentally-friendly agricultural cultivation methods by shopping organic – pesticides are still one of the leading causes of declining insect populations.

On hot summer days, black redstarts also appreciate a bird bath. For this, you do not need to buy anything fancy – a shallow bowl will do just fine. This will function as both a bird bath and a water bowl, as there is essentially no difference between the two. Just make sure to clean it regularly to prevent the spread of infectious aviary diseases. Especially on hot days, a bird bath can be a breeding ground for harmful bacteria, so clean it daily during the hot summer months.

If you would like to learn more about the most common garden birds, we have a whole series of bird profiles for you! Why not take a look and learn something about the house sparrow or the white wagtail.

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