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Canadian Projects

Canadian Blog

by Barry Kent MacKay,
Senior Program Associate

Born Free USA's Canadian Representative

Barry is an artist, both with words and with paint. He has been associated with our organization for nearly three decades and is our go-to guy for any wildlife question. He knows his animals — especially birds — and the issues that affect them. His blogs will give you just the tip of his wildlife-knowledge iceberg, so be sure to stay and delve deeper into his Canadian Project articles. If you like wildlife and reading, Barry's your man. (And we're happy to have him as part of our team, too!)

The Flasher in the Forest: The American Redstart

Published 12/04/12

In celebration of National Bird Day 2013, Barry Kent MacKay and Monica Engebretson — senior campaign associates for Born Free USA and lifelong bird enthusiasts — are taking turns in December and January to describe some of their favorite avian species. Below is the first installment, written by Barry.

When I was asked by Environment for the Americas to be its official 2013 artist for International Migratory Bird Day (see: www.birdday.org), I jumped at the chance. Each year it chooses a different theme and species, but always the focus is on the truly international nature of migratory birds. And the species chosen? The American Redstart.

Perfect. The American Redstart is a tiny bird, the male colored the deepest jet black, but with brilliant, broad orange-red patches on either side of the breast, on the wings and especially on the tail, and a white belly, often suffused with orange-red. He is forever flicking those wings and spreading that tail open to reveal the brightly contrasting color.

Well OK, that begs the question of why reveal the bright orange? The folks who ponder such things say that the sudden flashing flushes out insects, the main food of the redstart. A variety of other, unrelated birds in various parts of the world, such as the fantails of Asia, do the same thing. We are the unintended beneficiaries: A male redstart catching a ray of light amid the dark cedars, its colors aglow like embers, is a remarkably attractive sight.

The female does the same, although in her plumage the red is replaced by yellow, the black by soft tones of gray, blending to nearly olive on the back. At age 1 the male is colored like his mom, but the yellow darker and richer, and with a freckled scattering of adult black in his plumage.

The American Redstart is one of 116 species of birds (that number varies among scientists as it is not always certain what species should or should not be included in the family) belonging to a family of birds called the new world warblers, known by the scientific name, Parulidae, or, collectively, Parulids. The name “warbler” is unfortunate since the same term is used for similarly small but unrelated birds elsewhere in the world, and while they display an enormous variety of songs, they are not particularly inclined to warble!

They are confined to the Western Hemisphere, being found from the shores of the Arctic Ocean south to the northern edge of the South American pampas, including the Galapagos Islands and the West Indies. They consume mostly insects and other small arthropods (although they may consume small berries, other fruit and nectar). Some, including the American Redstart, are adept at catching tiny insects in flight.

Most North American Parulids are quite brightly colored, sporting — depending on the species — bright patches of yellow, orange, red, olive-green, chestnut-brown, blue, jet black and white. Their names — Yellow, Yellow-rumped, Black-throated Green, Black-throated Blue, Yellow-throated, Bay-breasted, Chestnut-sided, Cerulean, and so on and on — reflect this wonderful array of raiment.

The more northern species tend to be highly migratory and many of them lose those bright colors in time for the southward fall migration, a migration that may take them thousands of miles, to the tropics. The American Redstart is an exception. It takes the male two years to attain its bright breeding plumage, but after that the colors don’t change. Nor do they in many of the less colorful species.

We think of the American Redstart as “our” bird, who leaves us each fall, returning each spring. But the folks in Central and northern South America and the West Indies may think of them as “their” bird, as that is where it spends so much time. The Parulids are a tropical family with some members who have moved north, but return “home” to the tropics when the cold winds blow.

Resident tropical warbler species usually do not have winter plumages, and compared to the migrants, tend to show less variation in color between males and females. They also tend to be even less well known, less conspicuous amid tropical vegetation, although often quite colorful.

Significant declines in breeding populations of American Redstarts have been recorded in New England, Ohio, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. There have been increases elsewhere. American Redstarts migrate by night are thus often are mortally hurt by flying into tall, illuminated structures, such as skyscrapers, monuments and lighthouses. Loss of habitat in both breeding grounds and wintering grounds may contribute to declines, although fortunately they seem to have reasonably broad tolerances for second growth conditions.

They are a rare visitor to the American Southwest, but otherwise one can see them, spring and fall in most of temperate North America, bringing touches of bright, tropical color into our woodlands, parks and gardens.

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