Redstart: the bird profiles


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 do female redstarts look like? What is the difference between common redstart and black redstart? Read on for everything you need to know about the redstart’s diet, nest, young redstarts and more.

Redstart bird on rock with red and black feathers
The redstart showing off its magnificent plumage [Photo: stmilan/]

Despite its name, the common redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus) is much less common than its close relative, the black redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros). In fact, with the destruction of its natural habitat, common redstart populations have declined sharply in recent decades. Sparse woodland, fewer orchard meadows, and an increasingly intensified agricultural landscape have done little good for this passerine bird.

So, if you do spot one of these rare birds in your garden, count yourself lucky! Common redstarts have wonderfully contrasting and colourful plumage. Read on to find out how you can identify the rare bird, distinguish it from the black redstart and much more.

Redstart: key facts

SizeAbout 13-14cm

WeightAbout 15g

Breeding season
LifespanAround 5 years
HabitatOrchard meadows, sparse woodland, parks and gardens
Food preferences
Insects, spiders, berries
ThreatsLoss of habitat and food sources

How to identify the redstart

The male redstart is a truly magnificent sight. The small songbird has a dark grey back and wings. Its grey cap separates a white headband from a jet-black face, and a brilliant rusty-red underside extends all the way to the lower end of its tail.

Redstart with grey wings, back and cap, black face and rusty red underside and tail
A male redstart is hard to miss [Photo: Jesus Giraldo Gutierrez/]

How do you tell female and male redstarts apart?

Redstart females are much plainer. Their grey-brown upper side only slightly contrasts with their lighter undersides. The female’s breast is tinted orange-red, but its intensity varies from bird to bird; on some it is only faint, and on others it is not visible at all. The only distinct splash of colour on the female redstart is the bright, rusty-red underside of its tail, although this can be hard to spot.

Female redstart with plain grey-brown back and orange tail
Female redstarts are much plainer than the males [Photo: Jesus Giraldo Gutierrez/]

What does the redstart’s song sound like?

The song of the redstart sounds somewhat melancholic and consists of a sequence of clear whistling notes. Although the exact structure varies, the song usually begins with a single high note, then moves into a descending series of whistling notes and ends with variously shaped final notes: “Sii-tü-tü-tü-tü-jik-jik”.

Common redstart singing from high up branch
Male redstarts like to sing out from a high vantage point [Photo: Soffi/]

How do you identify young redstarts?

You can identify juvenile redstarts by looking out for the red underside of their tails. The rest of their plumage is plain, like the females. It is possible to distinguish young birds from their mothers, however, because the juveniles have lots of fine, white speckles over their bodies. These spots disappear in winter, although the young birds will not produce their full adult plumage until spring.

Young redstart with brown upper side and light coloured speckles all over
Young redstarts have speckled plumage [Photo: Vitallia/]

What do common redstart eggs look like?

Redstart eggs have an intense, plain, green-blue colour. Females lay between six and seven eggs per clutch in a nest cavity that is carefully padded with moss, hair and feathers.

Eight blue redstart eggs in padded nest
The redstart’s eggs are blue-green [Photo: Vishnevskiy Vasily/]

What is the difference between common redstarts and black redstarts?

The common redstart and the black redstart share the same shape and the same bright, rust-red underside of the tail. Unlike the common redstart, however, black redstart males do not have a red breast. They have dark coloured backs, heads and chests, and even darker faces and breasts. What is more, black redstart males display a white patch on their dark wings.

Black redstart male with dark head, breast and back and red tail
Unlike the common redstart, the black redstart male does not have a red breast [Photo: aaltair/]

Because black redstart and common redstart females are both plain, they are more difficult to distinguish. Black redstart females, however, do have darker plumage than common restart females, who have a lighter, slightly red breast.

Female black redstart with dark grey-brown feathers and red tail
Black redstart females have darker plumage than common redstart females [Photo: stmilan/]

What kind of habitat does the redstart prefer?

Redstarts are cavity nesting birds and depend on the hollows of mature trees. They prefer sparse forests and forest edges, but also like landscapes that are shaped by humans, such as orchards, parks and wild gardens.

Where does the redstart build its nest?

The redstart builds its nest in cavities: natural tree hollows, niches in buildings and walls or nest boxes. The male presents the female with several nesting options in his territory, and the female makes the final decision before designing the home. The female fills the cavity with nesting material in the form of stalks, leaves, sticks, moss or lichen and, for the eggs, an area is padded with plenty of soft material such as hair and feathers.

Redstart in opening of tree hollow
Redstarts are cavity nesting birds [Photo: Stephen Ellis35/]

When do redstarts breed?

Redstarts breed between May and July. During this time, they usually rear only one, rarely two broods. Once the eggs are laid, they are incubated for about two weeks. After that, the parents feed their young for a further 14 days before the chicks are large enough to explore their surroundings. By the end of August, at the latest, the young fly the nest, ready for their first big journey.

Where does the redstart go in winter?

The redstart is a long-distance migratory bird that spends the winter south of the Sahara. It does not return until the end of March or the beginning of April. The males arrive a little earlier than the females and establish their territories so that they have something to offer the females when they arrive.

Help the redstart!

Due to the intensification of agriculture and decline of insects, the redstart is slowly but surely losing its nesting and food resources. Here is how you can support the colourful bird and provide a home for it in your garden.

What do redstarts eat?

Redstarts are insectivores. They mostly hunt for insects on the ground or in shrubs. However, they also eat spiders, daddy longlegs and other small creatures such as millipedes or isopods, as well as berries and fruits. Because the birds spend the winter in Africa, they do not need food for winter.

Which bird boxes are suitable for the redstart?

Redstarts do appreciate the shelter of a garden birdhouse. You can build your own bird box at home. Read our article for information on materials and installation.

Redstarts prefer an enclosed box with one or two oval entrance holes, each 30 millimetres wide and 45 millimetres high. However, common redstarts also accept half-open bird boxes.

Redstart flying towards bird box
Redstarts also welcome nest boxes [Photo: Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH/]

What else can you do to support the redstart?

A birdhouse is a great way to attract redstarts to your garden, but the birds will still need food. To help them out, create a bird and insect friendly garden with a range of insect friendly flowers that you can plant individually or sow as a seed mix.

Of course, many other bird species benefit from insects as well. If you want to learn more about our feathered friends, take a look at our other bird profiles on swifts and serins.