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Black redstart

The black redstart (Phoenicurus ochuros) is more likely to be seen in the United Kingdom as a winter visitor or during its spring or autumn migrations to central Europe. Only a few pairs breed in the UK. A good place to see black redstarts in autumn is Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.

The few UK breeding pairs are usually seen inland. Wintering black redstarts are more often to be found on cliffs, in quarries and in ruined coastal buildings.

As the name suggests, the black redstart is distinguished by the black and red colours in its plumage, although this applies mainly to male birds. It is similar in size to the robin, at 14 to 15 centimetres (just over five and a half inches) in length. The longish, broad, square-ended tail is its most prominent feature, orange-red at the sides with a brown centre. Indeed, the word “start” is close to the Old English word for tail. Female birds also have red tails, although the colour is not as bright as in male black redstarts.

The plumage of male birds is grey-black, with the black being darkest on the throat. The top of the head and the back are greyer, with the chest speckled in grey and black. The winter plumage is more grey than black. The wings are black with white patches. Females are mostly brown, darker above than below.

The black redstart was originally a cliff-dwelling bird, and, like another former cliff-dweller, the feral pigeon, it has taken to urban and industrial habitats where tall buildings take the place of cliffs. Nests are built in wall crevices, behind drainpipes or on windowsills. Black redstarts prefer to return to the same nest site every year, and will do so for the whole of their lives. 

The nest is built from twigs, stalks, roots, leaves and mud, and lined with dry hairs. The clutch, laid between April and July, comprises four to six eggs, which are incubated by the female alone for up to 14 days. The male black redstart will not be far away, singing away on a high perch. The young will leave the nest after about 12 days, before they have fledged. A second brood is often raised. The non-wintering birds will leave in October for winter quarters in the Mediterranean area.

The young birds are fed on insects caught on the wing. Food for adult birds also includes crustaceans, worms, spiders, berries and seeds.

Due to there being only a small number of breeding pairs, typically no more than fifty throughout the country, the black redstart is on the amber list of species of concern in terms of conservation. 

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