Redstarts: good


Thanks to everyone who had a go at identifying the Moroccan passerine pictured here yesterday, and shown here again. As virtually everyone said, it's a female or juvenile male redstart (Phoenicurus). The fact that it was seen in Morocco in December makes an identification as Common redstart P. phoenicurus unlikely, as this species winters further south than the Atlas Mountains. At the time I ruled out this species, as the bird shown here has a browny/greyish breast (rather than a buffy/orange one) and a very pale eye ring. Moussier's redstart P. moussieri - which also occurs in the region during the winter and which I would love to have seen - could also be ruled out, as females also have an orange breast. So I conclude that this is a Black redstart P. ochruros. Females are fairly drab and best match the bird shown here [shot of Atlas Mountains shown below: pretty!].


However, there are problems. What appears to be a pale wing panel is present, and
Black redstarts lack this (except the subspecies P. ochruros gibraltariensis). Common and Moussier's redstarts have it, however. So could it be an unusual dull-breasted Common or Moussier's redstart after all? Or a hybrid? Hybridisation is not at all rare in redstarts and may in fact have been responsible for the evolution of some taxa (Ertan 2006). Black and Common redstarts frequently produced viable hybrids that can back-cross with the parent species. Grosch (2004) showed in experiments that, while Black redstarts really prefer to perch when feeding (as opposed to standing on flat surfaces), Black x Common redstart hybrids are not fussy and are hence more like Common redstarts. Moving on... females of all redstart species lack pale wing panels, so is this a juvenile male? Possible support for the Black redstart identification comes from the fact that the other redstarts we saw in the same area were also Black redstarts, but this is circumstantial evidence of course [Common redstart below from wikipedia]


Redstarts are part of the passeridan passerine clade Muscicapoidea, and seem to be part of a clade that also includes rock-thrushes (Monticola), wheatears (Oenanthe), stonechats (Saxicola) and nightingales and kin (Luscinia) (Jønsson & Fjeldså 2006). This chat-redstart-nightingale clade seems to be the sister-taxon to an African clade that includes alethes, robin-chats, akalats and forest robins. The pied flycatchers and their relatives, and the Muscicapa flycatchers and their relatives, are more basal members of the same assemblage. True thrushes (including solitaires, bluebirds and ant-thrushes) are the sister-taxon to the entire chat-flycatcher clade. All of this means that wheatears and their friends and relatives belong in Muscicapidae, and it better reflects phylogeny to keep this clade separate from its sister-taxon, Turdidae.

Molecular work incorporating distance estimates suggests that redstarts diverged from other muscicapids during the Miocene. Most species occur in the high mountainous regions of central Asia, so this is perhaps where the group initially evolved. Ertan (2006) proposed that they moved westwards during the Pleistocene, with separate isolation events then leading to the evolution of species and subspecies in the Middle East, Turkey, and Iberian Peninsula.

Much as I'd like to say more, I need to stop. For previous Tet Zoo articles on passerines see...

And: note to self, still need to do passerine supertree article(s).

Refs - -

Ertan, K. T. 2006. The evolutionary history of Eurasian redstarts, Phoenicurus. Acta Zoologica Sinica 52 (Supplement), 310-313.

Grosch, K. 2004. Hybridization between redstart Phoenicurus phoenicurus and black redstart P. ochruros, and the effect on habitat exploitation. Journal of Avian Biology 35, 217-223.

Jønsson, K. A. & Fjeldså, J. 2006. A phylogenetic supertree of oscine passerine birds (Aves: Passeri). Zoologica Scriptca 35, 149-186.

More like this

I think that pale wing panels in common redstarts are dependent on race.

I found Moussier's redstart to be easy to find in coastal scrub in Morocco (such as on the road north of Agadir, where it seemed very common), but I don't recall seeing it at all in the Atlas, though the guide books say it is there.

Black redstart only breeds in low numbers in the UK (I gather that currently the UK breeding population is estimated at about 50-60 pairs), and strangely in the UK most breeding seems to occur in urban areas (which is not I am told the case in mainland Europe).

By Mark Lees (not verified) on 05 Oct 2009 #permalink


strangely in the UK most breeding seems to occur in urban areas (which is not I am told the case in mainland Europe)

Actually, black redstarts do commonly breed in urban areas in continental Europe too. The German wikipedia even claims that about 90% of the total European population nowadays live in cities and in other areas near human settlement. (The German name of this species is Hausrotschwanz, which literally means 'house red-tail'; the name refers to this bird's habit of nesting in/on buildings.)


I am not an expert, but this looks like female/immature Black Redstart.

Actually, BR are most typical bird of large cities. When one returns from a party at sunrise, one hears them singing from high up the roofs. Most of the day they are invisible in their rooftop habitat.

interesting stuff. I remember getting all excited after seeing a black redstart in Romania, with there rarity in the UK, only to find out when I got home that they are like robins in Eastern Europe!

Dartian and Jerzy,

Building greenroofs here in the States, I've come across multiple projects in the literature that specifically aim to create rooftop habitats for the Black Redstart in the UK in an attempt to recreate environments similar to the WWII bomb damaged and 1960's derelict industrial sites colonised by this species.

Thought you might be interested:

Extensive [relatively shallow] Green Roofs in London

photo of Black Redstart roof 3 years after construction

By David Hilmy (not verified) on 22 Dec 2009 #permalink