It’s called the little candle, the Christmas bird, the butterfly of the bird world, and even the latrine bird (!). Why does one species have such oddly different nicknames? Answering that question about this high-energy, very vocal little warbler—the American Redstart—will stretch your thinking in multiple directions.

Redstarts live in Pennsylvania from late spring through mid-autumn, where they bop around trees and shrubs catching insects. They flick their brightly colored tails—splashed with orange in mature males, and with yellow in females and younger males—to confuse insects, flushing them out of their hiding places. This flickering effect is why in parts of Latin America, where many Redstarts overwinter, they’re called “candelitas”—little candles. The flashing colors of their tails and wings remind other people of butterflies opening and closing, gracing the Redstart with another moniker.

But in Jamaica their nicknames come from other thoughts. There they’re called Christmas birds because they arrive from Pennsylvania and other east coast locations in time for Christmas. These clever little foragers are especially fond of outhouses and garbage dumps, since that’s where they find abundant flies—hence the alternate nickname of “latrine bird.”

Besides latrines and dumps, in places like Jamaica and Costa Rica Redstarts gravitate towards coffee shrubs grown alongside shade trees. Trees provide these little charmers with protection from predators, and the coffee shrubs provide a feast of insects. Redstarts greatly help farmers by eating the hard-to-control coffee-berry borer, a beetle the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls “the world’s most devastating coffee pest”; where there aren’t enough insectivorous birds, this borer can ruin 80% of a farmer’s crop.

But before Redstarts get a chance to enjoy luscious coffee-berry borers and latrine flies, they have to actually make it from North America to the tropics. Like most migrating songbirds, they make their journeys at night—presumably to avoid the daytime hawks that could snatch them from the skies, and also to use stars for navigation. The trip is dangerous: city lights at night can disorient Redstarts, and in their daytime feeding stopovers they can get confused by reflections on windows;  in both cases, they can fatally slam into buildings. To make matters worse, the Redstarts’ usual stopovers have sometimes disappeared as good U.S. habitat has become a parking lot or strip mall. A hungry Redstart then has to expend precious energy searching around for food before resuming the journey the next night. And each night, telecommunication towers and wind turbines can also prove fatal; efforts to adapt these structures and reduce the dangers deserve our full support.

Once Redstarts reach the tropics, they compete with each other for the best habitat. Mature males usually win out; juveniles and females end up in drier areas with less reliable insect populations. One group of scientists found that when they temporarily removed the constantly-singing, dominant male Redstarts from prime habitat in Jamaica, within days the juveniles and females had moved into that territory. This showed that the juveniles and females do not really like where they usually stay—in fact, they have a higher death rate than the well-resourced dominant males, and females who end up staying in the drier areas the longest have poorer reproductive outcomes when they do arrive back in their North American breeding zones. The take-home message is that the quality of habitat in overwintering zones matters for later Redstart reproductive success. In other words, what happens in the Caribbean doesn’t stay in the Caribbean; it makes a difference for the gorgeous little Redstarts trying to breed in your backyard or nearby park. If they didn’t get enough food down south, they can’t necessarily “catch up” on their health when they get back to Pennsylvania. So preserving and creating abundant prime habitat in the tropics is an important conservation goal—a goal for the birds we love to see in our own world, birds we think of as “our” species.

Fortunately, there are several sets of good news for American Redstarts.

First, although their population has been gradually declining over the past few decades, the species is not yet endangered.

Second, there are dedicated, creative scientists working hard to figure out how exactly Redstarts live and the best ways to help them. In addition, environmentalists are taking steps both in the tropics and in the U.S. and Canada to preserve habitats for Redstarts and the insects they consume.

Third, there are things we can do to help them.

We can try to make our yards as bird-friendly as possible

We can make our homes safer for birds by

We can buy shade-grown coffee

We can donate to organizations that work to preserve Redstart habitats.

We can vote as if we consider the wildlife all around us to be stakeholders in our decisions.

And then, gratefully, in this migratory season we can look up and think about these diminutive birds, miracles of evolution, making their way across the night sky. Sometimes I find myself wanting to thank these tiny bird-candles for being so heroic in their journeys. They are inspiring. Life can be hard for a human, as for a songbird, but if the Redstarts don’t give up, then neither ever should I.

You can “put together a Redstart” with online puzzles for any skill level (it’s easy to modify the puzzle to have anywhere from 6 to 1,024 pieces) here.

You can explore the American Redstart’s migration routes here.

Christine M. Du Bois, Coordinator of the Lansdowne Bird Town and editor of Bird Beat

Image Credits:

Male American Redstart (adapted), by Wildreturn, licensed under CC BY-2.0

Map of breeding (yellow) and non-breeding (blue) ranges of American Redstart, by Cephas, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Female American Redstart, by lwolfartist, licensed under CC BY-2.0