Hooray! The first redstart of the year has arrived to sit on the roof while singing energetically for a mate . . .
With its clown-like mixture of black, slate blue, brown and red plumage, the male redstart is one of our most striking summer visitors. For the next month or so his garish plumage will make him stand out from the foliage, but it is in flight that both he and his otherwise drabber partner are most recognisable thanks to their flashing brick-red tails. Indeed, this semaphore explains both parts of its name for ‘start’ derives from stuort, Anglo-Saxon for tail.
And the tail is indeed vital to redstart life. It is a vital form of communication, acting both as a territorial display and a warning of potential danger. This is just as well, for despite being related to robins and nightingales, redstarts lack any musical ability and instead steal phrases from other songbirds to make up what was once described as “a promise never performed”.
Sadly the disappearing flash of red is an unfamiliar sight to most of us, for their range is now largely restricted to western Britain (over half our breeding pairs are found in Wales). It was not always thus: half a century ago, redstarts bred in London suburbs and were common along country lanes everywhere.
No one is quite sure why the birds have declined so rapidly. It cannot be the familiar villains of global warming or intensive farming. Britain is at the coolest edge of their range, so if anything they should benefit from climate change. Similarly, as woodland birds, changes in farming can have had very little impact. Yet while the copses of Kent, Sussex and Dorset are full of potentially perfect breeding territories, instead the birds ignore these, flying on to the woods and hedgerows in the west.
There are signs this may be going to change, however, for its close relative, the black redstart has recently colonised urban areas in the South East (Deptford is a particular stronghold). This darker species shares the flashing red tail has moved up from the Mediterranean to colonise derelict sites. Sure enough, its commoner rural cousin is showing signs of a recovery in its core range. The latest counts suggest it is building up in its core range and expanding eastwards into lost ground across the Midlands. Let us hope it is the beginning of a national reconquest, for this really is one of our most colourful songbirds.
Both species nest in hollows – redstarts in rotten branches, their black cousins in masonry crevices – and each seems reluctant to use nest boxes. Despite this they appear to benefit from the presence of artificial nests, probably thanks to reduced competition for their preferred natural cavities.
Having selected a good site, the female lays two or even three clutches of around six blue eggs through the summer. Both sexes help rear the young on a rich diet of insects, many of which are caught on the wing in darting sorties from a suitable perch. Later, when protein is not so important, the birds will supplement their insect diet with hedgerow blackberries.