The black redstart

David Chapman / 01 October 2012

David Chapman introduces a bird that thrives in derelict buildings and power stations.



The activity of humans has had a major effect on the wildlife around us today and though some species find our close proximity difficult to deal with, others use it to their benefit. One of the more interesting examples of coexistence is that of the black redstart. Prior to the Second World War, the black redstart was a very rare breeding bird in Britain but its propensity for nesting in derelict buildings and power stations meant that during the Blitz of London many new nest sites became available.

This is a bird which is at home in the mountains of southern Europe but also finds suitable conditions in the desolate rocky wastes often found in docks and in some abandonned urban areas. Its declining breeding population in the UK over recent decades is tied in with urban regeneration. They now breed only in London, Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester, Nottingham and Ipswich with a few pairs at power stations in the south and south east.

As a breeding bird most of us won't see black redstarts in our gardens but during late autumn, and even through winter, there is an influx of black redstarts into the country from other breeding sites, probably in eastern Europe.  Particularly in October and November it is possible to find black redstarts anywhere in the country but the southern half of the UK and anywhere near the coast are favoured places. 

Most of the birds that visit us are juveniles lacking the range of colour of the adult males; they can be quite difficult to spot since they are dusky grey but the flash of colour in their tail is eye-catching and unmistakable.  They are about the size and shape of a robin but lack the robin's red breast. The black redstart typically flicks from one perch to another and, as it does so, will momentarily reveal the glorious red plumage at the base of its tail. 

Black redstarts are insectivorous and will be found in places where there is most insect activity. This is why rocky beaches are good places to look for them but, on more than one occasion, I have seen black redstarts on the roof of our house in late October, along with the regular pied and grey wagtails.

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