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Birds seen in Great Britain: Redstart

The redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus) is, as the name suggests, distinguished by its red tail, the word “start” being close to the Old English word for tail. The tail is quite long and square-ended, and it is constantly quivered rather than flicked.

The redstart is a migratory bird, spending the winter in tropical Africa. However, it breeds in appreciable numbers in the north and west of Britain, particularly in Wales. It inhabits woodlands and parks, and sometimes suburban gardens.

The redstart is similar in size to the robin, at 14 to 15 centimetres (just over five and a half inches) in length. It is slimmer in shape than the robin, but has some of the same mannerisms, both in flight and its “bobbing”, but it prefers to stay off the ground. It is a very agile bird that barely stops moving, flitting about in the trees and fluttering into the air.

The redstart has a pleasant brief, clear song that is similar to that of the robin, and also has a plaintive “hweet” call like that of the chiffchaff.

Male redstarts not only have red tails but prominent orange-red chests. They have grey upperparts, a black face with white forehead, white underparts, and brown wings. The colours are less pronounced in winter. Female redstarts are mostly brown above and white below, with an orange-red tinge on the chest. The redness of the tail is, however, similar to that of the male birds.

Redstarts return to their breeding grounds in early April, beginning their nest building in May. Favoured nesting sites are wall crevices, the rafters of shed roofs, woodpiles and sometimes nest boxes in gardens. Nesting materials are typically plant stalks, roots, leaves and moss, with dry hairs and feathers for lining.

The clutch comprises five to eight eggs, which are incubated by the female alone for up to 15 days. Both parents are kept very busy feeding the brood, on small caterpillars, butterflies, beetles and other insects, many of them caught on the wing. The nestlings leave the nest after 12 to 16 days, after which the parents are likely to raise a second brood. Redstarts will leave for Africa in September or early October.

Although there are likely to be around 100,000 breeding pairs in the UK during the season, the redstart is still on the amber list of species of concern in terms of conservation, due to declining numbers in Europe.

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