Black redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros)

French: Rougequeue noir
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderPasseriformes
FamilyMuscicapidae
GenusPhoenicurus (1)
SizeLength: 14 - 15 cm (2)
Wingspan: 23 - 25 cm (3)
Weight12 - 20 g (2)

The black redstart is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

Formerly thought to be a member of the thrush family, the black redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros) is now commonly considered to belong to the Muscicapidae, or old world flycatchers (1) (4). It is a small, attractive passerine, which is generally dark grey to blackish on the crown and upperparts, shading darker on the wings. The black redstart typically has a slaty-black face and underparts, and the central tail feathers, legs and bill are also black. In contrast to its otherwise dark plumage, the black redstart’s lower belly, rump and outer tail feathers are striking orange-red, which is particularly conspicuous in flight, or when the tail is fanned (2) (3) (5). The black redstart sometimes has a bold white patch on the wing (3) (5).

The female black redstart is duller than the male and has more uniform smoky grey-brown plumage, except for darker markings on the wings and slight dark streaking on the breast. The underparts are buff to orange-buff on the vent and under-tail coverts, and the tail is similar to that of the male, with orange-red outer tail feathers and black central feathers (2) (3). The juvenile is darker than the female, with faint dark scaling to the throat and belly. Immature black redstarts are typically very similar to the female in appearance (2) (3) (6). The black redstart’s call includes hard, rattling or creaky notes, a short tsip, a scolding tucc-tucc and a rapid rattle in alarm (7) (8). 

There are five commonly accepted subspecies of the black redstart which, apart from occurring in different locations, differ mainly in the upperparts colouration of the adult male. Some sources recognise as many as seven subspecies (2) (4) (9).

The black redstart has an extensive Palearctic distribution. It breeds in south and central Europe and Asia, from England, southern Sweden and Russia, south to the Mediterranean and Black Sea, and east into Asia. The black redstart is resident in most of its range, although birds from more northern latitudes winter in southern Europe and North Africa (3) (2) (10) (11).

The black redstart inhabits open, sparsely vegetated rocky terrain, including crags, cliffs and gullies, typically in hills and mountains (2) (3) (11) (12). It has also adapted to live in industrial and urban areas, and is found in villages, towns and cities, where it frequents sites that mimic rocky habitats, such as churches, large buildings, factories, quarries, building sites and wasteland (2) (3) (5) (6) (8) (11).

The black redstart generally occurs up to elevations of 2,500 metres (3), although in some parts of its range, such as in the Himalayas and China, this species may be found up to 5,200 metres (2). The black redstart typically avoids forests, meadows and other areas of dense vegetation, including parks and landscaped areas in urban environments (11).

An opportunistic species, the black redstart feeds mainly on insects and larvae, as well as other invertebrates, such as earthworms, spiders and snails. In the autumn, the black redstart will also feed on fruits, berries and seeds (2) (3) (5) (10). The black redstart typically forages on the ground, sometimes digging in the earth to uncover larvae. It will also perch and make sallies to the ground, or catch passing insects in flight, as well as sometimes briefly hovering to take prey from vegetation (2) (12).

The black redstart breeds around mid-April to early July in the European parts of its range, May to August in India, and June to July in China (2) (3). The male black redstart sings intensively during the breeding season to establish and reinforce its territory (13). It is unusual among other small ground feeding passerines as it prefers high song posts, often perching 20 metres or more above the ground on natural or artificial perches, avoiding trees and tall shrubs (11).

The female black redstart builds a loose nest of dry grass, leaves and moss which is lined with hair, wool and feathers. It is usually placed in a hole, cavity, crevice or ledge among rocks or buildings (2) (3) (11), between 3 and 50 metres above the ground (11). Breeding sites are generally located in fairly close proximity to open, still or slow-moving water, such as streams, rivers or canals, or in areas of sparsely vegetated, rubbly or rocky terrain that provides the black redstart with an abundant source of insect prey with which to feed the young (11) (14). This species lays a clutch of between 4 and 6 eggs, which are incubated solely by the female for around 13 days. The black redstart may produce two broods each breeding season (2) (3) (8) (11). Both the male and female provide food for the chicks, which remain in the nest until they fledge between 12 and 20 days after hatching. The young are often flightless for several days after leaving the nest (2) (3).

Although the black redstart is classified as Least Concern and is not currently threatened with extinction (1), populations in many urban areas are considered to be declining (11). Large scale redevelopment and regeneration of city centre sites is removing large areas of suitable habitat, and may impact negatively on breeding populations of this species (11) (15) (16). Nest sites are also vulnerable to accidental removal or disturbance due to their close proximity to human activities (15).

As one of the rarest breeding birds in the UK, with fewer than 100 pairs nesting in Britain, the black redstart is considered to be a ‘Species of Conservation Concern’ in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (11) (14) (17). Specific black redstart Action Plans have been prepared through the Local Biodiversity Action Plan process in several areas, including London, Birmingham and the Black Country, and Lewisham (14).

This species is protected by Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 in the UK (18), which makes it illegal to kill or injure adults, eggs and chicks of the black redstart, to destroy its nest, or intentionally disturb this species during breeding (5) (14) (15) (17). The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 states that ‘reckless’ disturbance of birds listed on Schedule 1 during the breeding season is subject to prosecution under the law (14) (19). The black redstart is also listed on the Red Data Book of Birds (11) (14) (17), and on Appendix II of the Bern Convention (20).

Conservation measures for this species include creating new habitat to provide suitable nesting sites. Programmes in Birmingham, London and Manchester in the UK have introduced a ‘green roof concept’, which involves creating new habitat on the roof spaces of new developments and existing buildings (11) (14).

Other conservation recommendations for the black redstart in the UK include identifying breeding and foraging areas to ensure that sites are protected, as well as surveying for black redstarts as part of the planning application for new developments (15). In Manchester, workshops have been carried out for planners and ecologists covering black redstart ecology, surveying, mitigation and green roof design to help promote best practice (11).

Find out more about black redstarts:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

  1. IUCN Red List (March, 2011)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Christie, D. (2005) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 10: Cuckoo-Shrikes to Thrushes. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  3. Avibirds European Birdguide Online - Black redstart (March, 2011)
    http://www.avibirds.com/euhtml/Black_Redstart.html
  4. MobileReference (2008) The Illustrated Encyclopedia of European Birds. MobileReference, Boston.
  5. Wild About Britain - Black redstart (March, 2011)
    http://www.wildaboutbritain.co.uk/?q=black-redstart
  6. Sedláček, O., Cikánová, B. and Fuchs, R. (2006) Heterospecific rival recognition in the black redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros). Ornis Fennica, 83: 153-161.
  7. Peterson, R.T., Mountfort, G. and Hollom, P.A.D. (1993) Birds of Britain and Europe. HarperCollinsPublishers, London.
  8. Hume, R. (2002) RSPB Complete Birds of Britain and Europe. Dorling Kindersley Limited, London.
  9. Ertan, K.T. (2006) The evolutionary history of Eurasian redstarts, Phoenicurus. Acta Zoologica Sinica, 52(Supplement): 310-313.
  10. RSPB - Black redstart (March, 2011)
    http://www.rspb.org.uk/wildlife/birdguide/name/b/blackredstart/index.aspx
  11. Jones, G. (2009) Black Redstart Species Action Plan. Greater Manchester Biodiversity Project, Manchester. Available at:
    http://www.gmbp.org.uk/site/images/stories/black%20redstart%20bap_09.pdf
  12. Sedláček, O., Fuchs, R. and Exnerová, A. (2004). Redstart Phoenicurus phoenicurus and black redstart P. ochruros in a mosaic urban environment: neighbours or rivals? Journal of Avian Biology, 35: 336-343.
  13. Weggler, M. (2000) Reproductive consequences of autumnal singing in black redstarts (Phoenicurus ochruros). The Auk, 117(1): 65-73.
  14. Blackredstarts.org.uk - Black redstart (March, 2011)
    http://www.blackredstarts.org.uk/
  15. Wildlife Trust: Black redstart Species Action Plan (March, 2011)
    http://www.wildlifetrust.org.uk/urbanwt/ecorecord/bap/html/redstart.htm
  16. City of London (2003) City Biodiversity Action Plan. City of London, London. Available at:
    http://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/NR/rdonlyres/4C7EA595-9EDB-4DEE-AD9F-6019EEE1650E/0/SUS_BD_citybioplan.pdf
  17. Joint Nature Conservation Committee: Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (March, 2011)
    http://www.jncc.gov.uk/page-3614
  18. London Wildlife Trust - Black redstart (March, 2011)
    http://www.wildlondon.org.uk/Habitatsandspecies/Species/Londonspriorityspecies/BlackRedstart/tabid/177/language/en-GB/Default.aspx
  19. Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (March, 2011)
    http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2000/37/contents
  20. Council of Europe: Bern Convention (March, 2011)
    http://conventions.coe.int/Treaty/EN/Treaties/Html/104.htm