A playground for black redstart chicks

Earlier this month, I came across a blog by the RSPB titled “Help wildlife feed the family this summer“, which encourages people to feed birds during the warm season and stresses the importance to help breeding pairs raise their chicks. On the other hand, another article highlighted the problems associated with feeding birds year round and particularly throughout the breeding season. I could not help wonder which is right as I recently, quite accidentally at first, started feeding birds at my window.

One evening, I threw leftover cereals over the small tiled roof that borders my attic window thinking birds would eat them. The next morning a group of grumpy-looking black redstarts stopped by for a snack.

The birds were hopping in and out of the gutter where the food had fallen. All were juveniles: their beak had yellowish gummy corners; speckled downy feathers covered their chest, belly and the back of their neck; and they seemed gregarious unlike adult black redstarts who are rather solitary birds. They twitched, quivered their well-grown orange tail and sang a hollow tap dance, the species’ typical alarm call, although they did not look stressed. They stood on the gutter despite my presence a meter away and kept staring at me, an incentive for me to keep feeding them and test the extent of their naive confidence.

I spiced up my small roof with a basic bird feeder made of recycled wood and filled with grains, a mossy water oasis and a fresh food bowl. All three are hanging uneasily on the slant roof, attached with twine from the inside of the flat through the window.

The young quickly became regulars, showing up alone, in pair or in threes, mostly early mornings and late afternoons when the sun heat is bearable, or otherwise stopping by for a sip of water. In less than a week, they accepted my presence just 20 cm away. I could not tell them apart at first, but since two of them had some down unevenly torn off their head during a violent thunderstorm I have named them Apache, Spot and Ring.

Apache‘s name is self-explanatory―the poor bird almost got scalped!

Spot‘s name comes from the round, hairless mark behind his left eye.

Apache is bolder and more inquisitive than Spot, hastily checks new additions to the roof, eats while my arms are out and even demands food. Both spend long moments on the roof several times a day. I think they are males from the way they challenge each other and partake in acrobatic chases that started off as a game but are now clearly intended to set food priority. It always begins with the birds staring at each other until one breaks the ice by diving on the other, and includes epic hover dances and aerial claw crossings. The young are totally distracted when fighting and more than once nearly bumped into my arms while in pursuit of each other around my attic window. They are also occasionally chased by an adult male I often see around the block.

Ring is probably a female. Spot and Apache tolerate her presence more and she rarely looks for trouble, apparently indifferent to her status in the group. She is also shier and rarely stops on the roof alone when I am in sight. Her name comes from the thick white rings around her eyes.

I am no black redstart specialist and these are guesses purely based on observation, so I may be wrong about the sex of all three chicks. Online information about black redstarts is scarce. Most of the literature I could find is from the UK where the species is protected and subject to various conservation programs. The birds are otherwise a Least Concern on the IUCN Red List given their extensive range everywhere else.

I had encountered the species only once before though closely and on very friendly terms: this little female had some sticky dirt on her right eye that she gladly let me remove so she could see again. She was evidently really keen to perch on my arm!

Location: Bayreuth, Bavaria, Germany

SOME LITERATURE ON BLACK REDSTARTS―Make Room for Black Redstarts – A species action plan for Greater Manchester, Greater Manchester Biodiversity Project 2008. A case of cooperative breeding in the Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros – labor division and a pattern of food distribution among nestlings, K. Leniowski et al., Avian Ecol. Behav. 23, 2013: 41–49

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