This attractive member of the chat family, slightly larger than a Robin, is almost as comfortable with Homo sapiens as the House Sparrow, occupying urban areas as well as wild, rock terrain. They can often be seen perching on buildings, shivering their red tails. The females are less obvious than the gaudy male pictured, being almost uniform dark grey apart from the distinctive tail.
The species is widely distributed in Europe, reaching southern England in the north-west where it colonised bomb sites after the Second World War. Birds are still to be found in parts of London today. In Portugal it is an all-year resident in the north with a population possibly in excess of a hundred thousand pairs. In the south only small numbers remain to breed in the coastal south-west. Large numbers of migrants from northern Europe arrive in October, after which it is can be seen almost anywhere until they leave for their breeding grounds in March.
Despite their abundance, Black Redstarts are not gregarious, occurring only in small, loosely connected parties at migration times. Nests are made in holes and crevices in buildings, caves or rock faces. They are normally quite high up and well apart to prevent territorial disputes. Pairs often raise two broods during the summer.
This is not a fine songster like the Nightingale. “Scratchy” and “wheezy” are terms used to describe the short, stuttering phrases, which can sound more insect-like than avian. They have also been likened to the crackling associated with radio interference! In addition, some mimicry of other species, usually tits and finches, is occasionally heard. When alarmed, a harsh ‘tuc’ or a scolding rattle may be given.
For a passerine capable of migrating long distances, the Black Redstart is rather ungainly in the air, with a seemingly laboured, ‘floppy’, loose-tailed flight action. Although insect prey is taken during short aerial sallies, much of its food is taken on the ground, often after being spotted from a low perch. Berries also comprise part of its diet.