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 Redstart - Fact File
Phoenicurus phoenicurus
Summer visitor and passage migrant.
Open woodland, parks and heaths.


14cm (5.5")


During the first half of this century, despite the increasing interest taken in bird protection, several kinds of small birds formerly known to breed regularly throughout the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk became very much scarcer.

Some, such as the wryneck, ceased to breed in East Anglia; others, notably the stonechat, all but vanished.

In certain cases it is clear that birds have lost a great deal of the kind of land suitable for nesting; the wheatear, for instance, has been deprived of vast areas of open Breckland through afforestation and since it relied largely on rabbit-holes for nesting, myxomatosis has had a discouraging effect on this species even in open country over the past six years.

It is not so easy to see why some other birds have become comparatively scarce. If one takes the case of the redstart, once well known everywhere in summer as the 'firetail' it is hard to find a cause for present scarcity.

Redstart showing red tailThis attractive little cousin of the robin and nightingale, with constantly flicking fiery tail, used to frequent parks and gardens throughout East Anglia in the 19th century. The ornithologists of the time described it as a common summer resident and it is known to have nested even in the towns (one site was in Surrey Street in the heart of Norwich).

It built its nests in the sorts of places used by robins, in walls, mossy tree stumps, holes in the ground and crevices of buildings. No man's hand was turned against it and it cannot be said that its food supplies have vanished, since most other similarly insectivorous birds remain common. Yet nowadays only a few pairs nest each year mainly in or near Breckland.

I saw what was probably the last redstart's nest near Norwich and possibly the last in East Norfolk in 1927, when a pair bred in ivy a little way up the wall on the front of Keswick Hall. This nest, I remember, was conspicuous on account of the large amount of straw used for its base.

There are still districts in Britain where redstarts nest in abundance, but distribution is much patchier than it used to be. It is possible we are witnessing a change in geographical distribution of the redstart's breeding grounds rather than an actual depletion of the population.

Redstarts visit us still with some regularity on their spring and autumn passage migrations, especially along the East Coast. Round about the first week of April we look for the bright and beautiful cock birds, fire-tailed, grey-backed and with a snow-white forehead and brow-stripe contrasting with jet-black throat.

While it is quite possible that we may lose our breeding redstarts altogether during the next few decades if the present process continues, there is also the possibility that they may return and recapture their lost ground.

The matter appears to be beyond the control of ornithologists, but it may be that by taking all possible measures to protect the few breeding pairs left and by providing attractive nesting places in the surrounding country, some improvement in the situation might be made.

.By Ted Ellis

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Illustrations by Dave Nurney from - The Pocket Guide to the Birds Of Britain and North-West Europe By Chris Kightley and Steve Madge
© Pica Press and reproduced with kind permission.