American Redstart

Setophaga ruticilla

  • Version: 3.0 — Published December 2, 2016
  • Thomas W. Sherry, Richard T. Holmes, Peter Pyle, and Michael A. Patten

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Figure 1. Distribution of the American Redstart.

Distribution of the American Redstart in North and Central America and the Caribbean. This species also winters east to the Lesser Antilles and south to northern South America. See text for details.

Adult male American Redstart.

Older males (≥2 yr, Definitive plumage) glossy black with contrastingly bright salmon orange patches on base of outer rectrices and base of remiges, as well as on sides of breast; lower underparts (belly, vent, and undertail-coverts) white.

© Michiel Oversteegen , Aruba , Aruba , 3 October 2016
American Redstart female or hatch-year male.

Females generally light gray on head, gray to olive green on back, and whitish below with pale yellow (not salmon orange) patches on tail, wings, and sides. In Fall, not always distinguishable from hatch-year male.

© Jeremiah Trimble , Massachusetts , United States , 22 October 2016

A small, lively wood-warbler (Parulidae), the American Redstart is unforgettable for its conspicuous pirouettes, acrobatic fly-catching sorties, and conspicuous orange-on-black plumage in adult males—yellow-on-gray in females and first-year males. The brightly colored “flash patterns,” which the redstart displays while fanning its tail and drooping its wings, appear to flush prey from vegetation but also serve in communication among individuals of various ages and sexes. The flattened bill with well-developed rictal bristles and proportionately large wing and tail area facilitate in-flight pursuit of insect prey, a behavior used more often than phylogenetically related parulids. This warbler is also vocally conspicuous, especially during the breeding season, with its series of high-pitched phrases sung in a variety of song types and patterns. The fact that the plumage of first-year males resembles that of the female has elicited considerable interest among behavioral and evolutionary biologists.

Corresponding with its broad geographic range (Figure 1), this species occupies a wide variety of open wooded habitats in summer, including secondary forests, fencerows, and deciduous woodlands. Within its overwintering range it is found in virtually any low to mid-elevation tropical or subtropical habitat with woods or trees, including mangroves (especially black mangrove, Avicennia), primary forest, secondary forest, coffee and citrus plantations, and even isolated trees in residential urban areas.

The American Redstart is locally abundant in much of their breeding range, particularly where appropriate habitat remains. Based on Breeding Bird Survey data (1966–2013), populations have declined in particular habitats (especially in some fragmented and urbanized landscapes) and regions while increasing in others, with only a slight decline in survey-wide abundance (Sauer et al. 2014b).

Its broad geographic range and abundance, conspicuous foraging and communication behaviors, and accessibly low nests, coupled with concern about declining populations of migratory birds (e.g., Sherry and Holmes 1995, Sherry and Holmes 1996a, Faaborg et al. 2010b), have all contributed to making the American Redstart a model species for understanding the ecology and evolution of long-distance migration (Boulet and Norris 2006), including habitat quality, seasonal interactions and mechanisms, carryover effects, migratory connectivity, sexual selection, and year-round demography. The conceptual advances from research on American Redstart have benefited from novel application of technologies like stable-isotope analysis, satellite imagery, and 3-dimensional territory overlap, as well as renewed emphasis on full annual-cycle ecology and experimental hypothesis testing (Sherry and Holmes 1995, Marra et al. 1998, Faaborg et al. 2010b, Wilson et al. 2011b, Tonra et al. 2013, Cooper et al. 2014).

Recommended Citation

Sherry, T. W., R. T. Holmes, P. Pyle, and M. A. Patten (2016). American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla), version 3.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.