Black Redstart

Some Black Redstarts do overwinter in the relatively warmer south-west of the UK, but this is primarily a migratory species. 
Photo: Ray Surridge


Scientific name: Phoenicurus ochruros

Conservation status: UK Birds of Conservation Concern, amber list.

People living in London, Birmingham, and a few other larger cities, have more chance of spotting a breeding pair of Black Redstarts, as these Robin-sized birds have adapted well to urban life. Even for city dwellers, chances are not large, with a maximum of only 75 breeding pairs across the UK. The Black Redstart, like its close cousin the Redstart, is however migratory, and numbers increase in the spring and autumn as they make their way north and south, respectively. In the autumn, Cornwall and Scilly provide a welcome stopping point in their passage southwards to north Africa and south Asia and Black Redstarts do overwinter in the relatively warmer southwest of the country, particularly on the coast (about 500 individuals overwinter in the UK).

Mainly greyish-black in colour, this shy bird easily blends into its background, but can be distinguished by its rusty red rump and tail, by the white wing flash of the males in their summer plumage, and by its short warbling call. The female is more brownish in colour, in comparison with the more striking slate colouring of the male. In breeding season, the male will perch very high to sing and protect its territory. This is unusual in a ground feeding species: Black Redstarts mainly eat invertebrates, such as spiders and insects, as well as larvae, seeds and berries.

The original habitat of Black Redstarts was exclusively stony mountainous ground and cliffs, but it has adapted well to urban areas, especially waste ground, railway sidings and industrial buildings, enabling it to spread throughout Europe. Although it is widely distributed elsewhere in its range, in the UK it is on the Birds of Conservation Concern amber list, because of the low number of breeding pairs and potential disturbance to their urban habitats: redevelopment of derelict areas displaces them from potential breeding sites. Conservation effort in cities often focuses therefore on providing replacement breeding habitat, such as on ‘green roofs’.

Did you know…?

…There are five accepted subspecies of Black Redstart. The one we see in the UK is ssp. gibraltariensis

…Urban dwellers: Black Redstarts nest on Coventry Cathedral, and on the Natural History Museum in London. The first report of a breeding pair in the UK was in 1926, at the Wembley Exhibition Centre.

More information and references:

Gooders, J. and Harris, A., 1986. Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Ireland. Kingfisher Books, London.

Published: December 2013
Author: Amanda Scott
Photos: Ray Surridge