Butterflies of the Bird World

By Lynette Anderson, Belwin Conservancy Naturalist

American Redstart

"In order to see birds it is necessary to become part of the silence."
– Robert Lynd

A light step, an alert awareness, an eager anticipation. These are some of the necessary ingredients for spring birding. This is the time of year when our hearts are full of excitement for longer days, warmer temperatures, and the delightful chorus of returning birds!

One such bird is the American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla), which is a member of the warbler family. This bird is referred to as “the butterfly of the bird world” because of its quick fluttering motions and bright orange color on the wings and tail. In Latin America, they are called “Candalitas” or little torch.

As an insect eater, the Redstart loves to hang out in the canopy, gleaning food from leaves and twigs. Some of its preferred tasty tidbits are leafhoppers, planthoppers, flies, moths and their larvae, wasps, and beetles. Similar to Flycatchers, they also “hawk” insects by flying out to catch the prey on the wing.

American Redstart

Another hunting techniques is to fan their tails and droop their wings, showcasing the bright orange and black or yellow and gray “flash patterns” of their plumage. This presumably startles the insect, causing it to flush from the vegetation. If successful, the Redstart gets a tasty treat!

They will also eat small berries such as serviceberry or magnolia.

Redstarts are one of our more common warblers. They are summer residents of second-growth forests that have an abundant shrub component with close proximity to water. Their breeding range extends from the southeastern U.S. to far northern Canada and Alaska. Winter habitat for a Redstart is typically tropical, including the Osa Peninsula, where they hang out in mangroves, and shade-grown coffee and citrus plantations.

Here are four things to look for to help you identify the American Redstart:

  • Size and shape. Look for a medium-sized warbler (length: 4-5 inches) with a relatively wide, flat bill and fairly long, expressive tail.
  • Color pattern. Males are mostly black with bright orange patches on the sides, wings, and tail. Their belly is white. Females and immature males replace the orange with yellow or yellow-orange.

American Redstart

  • Behavior. Redstarts are incredibly active insectivores that never seem to stand still. They rapidly spread their cocked tails, exposing the orange or yellow in a quick flash, which often startles insect prey into flushing. They flit from branch to branch.
  • Habitat. Open, deciduous wooded areas in both winter and summer habitats.

These sweet singing birds are a treat to watch and a joy to listen to. Give yourself the gift of a spring walk and become part of the silence that allows us to enter the magic of the natural world.

We’re hosting a variety of bird walks at Belwin in the coming months! Check the events calendar to learn more.