I’ve always been a warbler fan, celebrating every opportunity that comes my way for seeing these colorful, energetic feathered sprites. In early May I got to introduce some other bird enthusiasts to some of our warblers during a bird walk at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton, Tennessee. Yellow-breasted chat, one of the warblers observed during the morning stroll, always stands out from the rest of the flock.
The Yellow-breasted Chat has long held a unique distinction among the New World wood-warblers as the largest member of this diverse family of neotropical birds. Some experts, however, have always questioned whether the Yellow-breasted Chat is truly a warbler. The jury, based on my research, is apparently still out. Personally, I hope the chat continues as a member of the warbler clan because what family doesn’t need its big, goofy oddball? If nothing else, the yellow-breasted chat is truly an the odd bird out among the little birds known as warblers that spend most of their time constantly on the move, flitting from branch to branch in hyperactive bursts of activity.
Yellow-breasted chats aren’t more sedate than other warblers, but they don’t dart about in the treetops in the same way as might a Northern parula or blackpoll warbler. During the spring ritual of attracting a mate, the males are obsessed with constant singing and performing. The performance portion of the program consists of awkward, drooping flights into the open before plunging back into thick cover. Males will also select an elevated perch in the open to proclaim their availability through song for any listening females.
There are many other ways they stand out on the warbler family tree. For instance, yellow-breasted chats are significantly bigger than all other warblers, reaching a length of 7.5 inches with a wingspan of almost 10 inches. The two sexes look alike, which is something else that separates them from many, but not all, warblers, which are generally known for the differences in appearance between males and females. The yellow-breasted chat has olive-green upperparts with white bellies and bright yellow throats and breasts. These chats also have long tails and heavy bills. A prominent characteristic is a spectacle-shaped white eye-ring.
I have observed yellow-breasted chats in many locations in the region, but during my early years birding this was a very elusive bird for me. It took me a couple of years to get my first satisfactory look at this interesting bird. Chats prefer habitats such as dense thickets and other underbrush, which offers remarkable concealment from prying eyes.
Chats are loud birds at most times, producing a variety of odd vocalizations, which means they are often heard before they are seen. The online Audubon Guide to North American Birds describes these sounds as “a bizarre series of hoots, whistles, and clucks, coming from the briar tangles” and labels them a reliable means for determining the presence of a yellow-breasted chat. By learning these vocalizations, you’ll increase the chances of finding one of these birds during time spent outdoors.
The chat’s habitat preferences and its repertoire of vocalizations makes it easy to associate these birds with others that share the same dense, brushy habitats and a penchant for making unusual vocalizations. Birds often found in proximity to chats include brown thrashers, gray catbirds, white-eyed vireos and Eastern towhees.
Habitat loss has resulted in a steady decline of yellow-breasted chats in some parts of their range. It is a widely distributed bird, spending the nesting season from southern Canada to Mexico. Most chats retreat to Mexico and Central America for the winter months. This chat mostly feeds on insects, supplementing its diet with berries that ripen during the summer months.
Female chats usually lay three to four eggs, but both parents care for the young. Young chats are usually ready to leave the nest only eight days after hatching, but they will remain dependent on their parents for food for a couple of weeks. Chats usually nest twice each during the nesting season.
I’ve only observed a yellow-breasted chat on one occasion at my home. That individual, a fall migrant, was a delightful surprise. The yellow-breasted chat is usually a bird that I have to make an attempt to find. It’s worth the effort to gain a good look at this big, brash member of the warbler clan.
Three other chats, all birds of tropical regions, were moved out of the warbler clan in 2009 by the American Ornithologists’ Union. Experts now believe that the rose-breasted chat of South America, the gray-throated chat of Mexico, Guatemala and Belize and the red-breasted chat of the Pacific slope of Mexico are more closely related to cardinals and tanagers than warblers. The AOU, should it one day make that decision for the yellow-breasted chat, is likely to classify this oddball bird as a member of the Cardinalidae family of birds.