Yellow-breasted Chat

Bird of the Month: Yellow-breasted Chat

By Andy McCormick

PC: Mick Thompson (Yellow-breasted Chat)

PC: Mick Thompson (Yellow-breasted Chat)

Scientific Name: Icteria virens

Length 7.5 in

Wingspan 9.75 in

Weight: 0.88 oz (25g)

AOU Band code YBCH

The Yellow-breasted Chat is the most unwarbler-like warbler. Ornithologists have debated where it best belongs in the world of birds, but for now it is in the Parulidae, the family of the warblers. Physically it is distinguished from other warblers by its large size and heavy bill. When on the breeding territory the chat will often sing at night unlike other warblers. It is the only warbler that will hold food in its feet (Dunn & Garrett). Its song is most un-warbler like.

Its distinctive song is more like chatter, which may be how the bird got its common name (Holloway). It is varied and can combine “a series of irregularly spaced scolds, chuckles, mews, rattles and other unmusical sounds” (Alderfer). Sibley describes the song as, “a harsh, rasping quality for toop-toop-toop-toop-toop-toop-toop, cherk, jedek, chrrr, chrrr, chrrr, chrrr, chrrr…” You can hear the song of a Yellow-breasted Chat recorded in Colorado in May 2013 at Macauley Library.

The Yellow-breasted Chat is in the genus Icteria, from the Greek, ikteros, jaundice, referencing the yellow-green breast, and its species name is virens, from the Latin vireo to be green, referencing the olive back (Holloway). The Chat west of the Great Plains is the subspecies I. v. auricollis, and it has a deeper orange-yellow breast and grayer back than its eastern counterpart (Dunn & Garrett). 

The chat is a bird of thickets and some of its habitat is described as impenetrable (Alderfer). Most of the year the chat is quite secretive and it spends most of its time in dense scrub such as willow thickets, where it will glean insects and larvae from low branches. During spring migration it arrives in Washington in early May and nests east of the Cascade Range. The female will build a large open cup nest deep in a thicket between one and eight feet above the ground. Typically three to four large, creamy white eggs with brown spots at the end are deposited. Incubation takes 11 days and the young are quick to develop and leave the nest eight days after hatching. Chats will often have two broods per year. 

The western subspecies I. v. auricollis migrates along the Pacific Flyway and winters in the coastal lowlands of Mexico and Central America to Guatemala where it inhabits similar brushy habitat. It is not often seen in fall migration probably because the males have stopped singing and it maintains its secretive habits.
There is evidence that the Yellow-breasted Chat has declined precipitously across its range (Dunn & Garrett). Its preference for thick brush leaves it vulnerable because this type of habitat is short-lived in the succession from prairie to forest. Much former farmland had patches of thickets and in the eastern United States this is being lost to reforestation and human development. Western populations seem more stable. Nevertheless, chat nests face another threat as they are often parasitized by Brown-headed Cowbirds. Land management that supports agricultural set-asides and the natural growth of brushy areas after timber harvests are two ways that suitable habitat for the Yellow-breasted Chat can be encouraged (Eckerle & Thompson).