Yellow-breasted Chat | Life Histories of North American Birds | A.C. Bent
Feather Pic Arthur Cleveland Bent

Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds
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Yellow-breasted Chat
Icteria virens [Eastern Yellow-breasted Chat]

[Published in 1953: Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 203: 587-599]

This curious bird seems somewhat out of place among the wood warblers, on account of its large size, different proportions, and strikingly different behavior. There were confused ideas among the earlier writers as to where it belongs. Audubon classed it with the manakins, and others have placed it with the vireos or with the honeycreepers, but structurally it seems to be most closely related to the wood warblers, with its nine primaries, partly booted tarsus, and deeply cleft inner toe. It differs from the vireos, which also have nine primaries, in having no notch in the bill. But it also differs from the wood warblers in having a larger, heavier and more curved bill, shorter and more rounded wings, and relatively longer and more graduated tail.

During the breeding season the species Icteria virens occupies practically all the United States, except Florida, the Gulf coast, and northern New England. Its range extends into southern New England, where it is rare and irregular north and east of Connecticut, and into some southern portions of central Canada, where it is also irregular in its occurrence. Throughout all this range it is perhaps commoner than we suppose, on account of its secretive habits. Its favorite resorts are the very dense thickets and briery tangles that grow in profusion on low, damp ground, along small streams, or about the borders of ponds or swamps. But it also finds a congenial home in isolated patches of thick, tangled shrubbery on high, dry ground, in old, neglected pastures and along the edges of woodlands. Especially attractive are such upland thickets where small trees and bushes are entwined with an almost impenetrable tangle of catbrier, Virginia creeper, poison ivy, and wild grape vines. In such unattractive places for exploration, the bird is often overlooked by the casual observer, for it is a past master in the art of keeping out of sight. But a medley of strange sounds, musical and otherwise, catcalls, whistles, and various bird notes coming from points now here, now there in the bushes will betray the presence of this furtive and elusive clown among birds. Then, if we sit down quietly and squeak in imitation of a wounded bird, curiosity will prompt this versatile performer to show himself for a moment, after which he will disappear, to scold us from some remote corner of his retreat.

Courtship.--Chats are not much in evidence on their spring migration; they apparently do not often make long sustained flights in the open, but move along by short stages, keeping concealed for the most part in the dense thickets of shrubbery and vines, and are largely silent. But when they reach their chosen breeding grounds, the males proclaim their presence and advertise their home territory by the medley of whistling, chuckling, barking, and mewing sounds, coupled with the curious eccentricities that have made them famous.

When the females arrive, about a week later, the males greet them with a richer, more musical, and more pleasing performance, which P. A. Taverner (1906) describes very well, as follows:

His love-song is a woodland idyl and makes up for much of his shortcomings. From some elevated perch from which he can survey the surrounding waste for a considerable distance, he flings himself into the air--straight up he goes on fluttering wings--legs dangling, head raised, his whole being tense and spasmodic with ecstasy. As he rises he pours fourth a flood of musical gurgles, and whistles that drop from him in silvery cascades to the ground, like sounds of fairy chimes. As he reaches the apex of his flight his wings redouble their beatings, working straight up and down, while the legs hanging limply down remind the observer of those drawings we sometimes see from the brushes of Japanese artists. He holds his hovering position for an instant, then the music gradually dies away; and, as he sinks toward the ground, he regains his natural poise, and seeks another perch like that from which he started. What mistress could turn a deaf ear to such love-making as that? And we can rest assured that his does not.

Nesting.--Although the eastern yellow-breasted chat has nested a number of times, rather irregularly, in Massachusetts, I have never found it farther north and east than Connecticut, where it is a regular and common breeder.

I find three typical nests recorded in my notes, found near New Haven, Conn., on June 3 and 4, 1910. The first was 3 feet from the ground in a clump of dogwood and hawthorn bushes; and the second was in a thicket of small black birches overgrown with catbriers, 30 inches above ground; both of these nests were rather insecurely attached to their supports; the locality was a large neglected tract of cut-over land, grown up to scattered clumps of bushes and sprouting stumps. The third nest was only 2 feet up in a small huckleberry bush in a scrubby field, full of underbrush and scattered red cedars. The three nests were all much alike, consisting of a foundation of dead leaves, coarse straws, and weed stems, on which was built a firmly woven inner nest of grapevine bark, thinly lined with fine weed stems and grasses.

A. Dawes DuBois has sent me his notes on two nests found in Sangamon County, Ill., on May 30, 1908. The first of these was "two feet from the ground in a clump of blackberry briers, in a pasture thicket. It was constructed outwardly of small vine and weed stems, then a thick layer of dried oak leaves which formed the body of the nest. There was a slight lining of grasses and fine plant stems, inside the layer of leaves. A few shreds of coarse grass were added just before the layer of leaves was put in. There were 32 oak leaves and one elm leaf in the body of the nest, all smoothly laid in place. The dimensions were: internal diameter 3 inches, depth 2; external diameter 5 inches, depth 3." The second nest was "3 feet from the ground in a wild gooseberry bush intergrown with blackberry briers, amid dense foilage, in a thicket-grown pasture." He mentions seven other nests, seen in Tompkins County, N. Y.; most were from 2 1/2 to 5 feet up in various bushes, but one was "about 8 feet from the ground, loosely supported on a drooping young elm tree in a dense thicket."

T. E. McMullen's notes record data on 34 New Jersey and Pennsylvania nests found at heights from 18 inches to 5 feet; 21 of these were in blackberries, the others being in various bushes and vines; 3 were in hollies.

Nests of the yellow-breasted chat have doubtless been found in many other small trees and bushes, but the notes I have cited give a good idea of its usual nesting habits. Dr. Chapman (1907) says that he has known chats to nest in a village when  favorable cover was available. A most unusual nesting site is recorded by Charles F. Batchelder (1881); a pair of chats began building a nest in a wren box on a piazza; a violent windstorm blew down the box, which was replaced, but the chats did not return.

Eggs.--The number of eggs laid by the yellow-breasted chat varies from 3 to 5 to a set, commonly 5, but as many as 6 have been recorded. The eggs are ovate and rather glossy. The white, or creamy white, ground color is speckled and spotted with "bay," "chestnut," "auburn," "argus brown," or "chestnut-brown," with under spottings of "brownish drab," "light vinaceous-drab," or "pale brownish drab." The markings, usually sharply defined, are generally scattered over the entire egg with some concentration at the large end. Often the brown and the drab markings are equally intermingled, and then again the drab spots may be entirely lacking. Some of the more attractive eggs are marked with blotches, often of two or three shades of brown mixed with the drabs.

The measurements of 50 eggs average 21.9 by 16.9 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 25.4 by 17.3, 22.1 by 18.3, 18.3 by 17.3, and 22.1 by 15.8 millimeters (Harris).

Young.--F. L. Burns (1915b and 1921) recorded the incubation period as 15 days, which is probably unusual, for George A. Petrides (1938) determined it to be 11 days "from the appearance of the full clutch." Burns gives 11 days for the young to remain in the nest, but Petrides says that they spent 8 days in the nest before leaving. The latter continues:

The young were born naked. Brooding of both eggs and young was accomplished by the female alone during the period of observation, although both sexes evidently feed the young. . . .

The food of the young consisted almost entirely of soft-bodied orthoptera and larval lepidoptera. The only insect definitely identified was the large green mantis (Paratenodera sinensis), two half-grown specimens of which were fed the four-day old young. An unknown species of brown, almost hairless caterpillar was the greatest capture in numbers. A small green long-horned locust and a small brownish grasshopper also were fed the youngsters.

Four-day old young were fed only six times in five hours by the female, although the male attempted unsuccessfully to feed them several times. Copeland (1909), however, records a feeding time average of once every thirty-four minutes for the four-day old young over a thirteen-hour period.

The nest was kept very clean and the female, after feeding the young, would look carefully about the nest and if any excretory capsules were present she would pick them up in her bill and eat them. On one occasion, after swallowing the excretory sacs of two of the young she pulled a third capsule from the anus of the third and flew off with it.

Plumages.--The yellow-breasted chat seems to be the only wood warbler that develops no natal down, and the only one that has a complete postjuvenal molt, characteristics that suggest a wrong classification!

Dr. Dwight (1900) describes the juvenal plumage as "above, grayish olive-brown. Wings and tail olive-brown, edged with dull brownish olive-green. Below, ashy gray washed with olive-gray across the jugulum and on the sides. Auriculars grayish and lores dusky with a trace of white above the eye. . . . This plumage has been figured in colors (Auk, XVI, 1899, pp. 217-220, pl. III)."

The first winter plumage is "acquired by a complete postjuvenal moult after the middle of July. Two specimens examined show a complete moult in progress and the color and shape of rectrices in the limited material at my disposal points to this unusual moult, for this is the only Warbler known to me that renews wings and tail at this time."

He describes the first winter plumage of the male as "above, brownish olive-green, the wings and tail darker than in juvenal plumage and with greener edgings. Below, bright lemon-yellow, somewhat veiled with olive-gray, the abdomen and crissum dull white, the sides washed with olive-brown. Lores, suborbital region and postocular stripe dull black, veiled with ashy feather tips. Superciliary, suborbital and malar stripes white. Young and old become practically indistinguishable although young birds are rather duller."

The first and subsequent nuptial plumages are assumed by wear and slight fading of the browns and greens. Adults have a complete postnuptial molt in July, producing the adult winter plumage, which differs but little from that of the first winter, the black areas about the head averaging blacker.

Females have the same molts and similar plumages, the colors being only lighter or duller.

Food.--Probably all of the items mentioned above in the food of the young are also eaten by adult chats. A. H. Howell (1932) writes: "The Chat feeds largely on insects, including beetles, bugs, ants, weevils, bees, wasps, May flies, and various caterpillars, such as tent caterpillars and currant worms. It is said to be fond of wild strawberries and takes considerable other wild fruit, such as blackberries, raspberries, whortleberries, elderberries, and wild grapes. The stomachs of 7 specimens taken on Amelia Island in May and June contained insects and fruit pulp in about equal proportions, with a few spiders and small crustaceans. The insects included moths and their larvae, beetles, bugs, ants, wasps, and grasshoppers. The fruit consisted of blueberries and blackberries." Elsewhere (1907) he lists the chat among the birds that eat the cotton-boll weevil.

Behavior.--Next to its astonishing vocal performances, the eccentric, ludicrous, almost clownish, behavior is one of the chat's most outstanding characteristics. Although a bit fanciful and imaginary, Dr. J. M. Wheaton's (1882) account is a good character study of this buffoon of the brier patch.

If he discovers the approach of a human being, even at a considerable distance, he prepares to resent the intrusion; and giving three short, loud whistles, very low in tone, as a warning, he advances toward him, all the while careful that he should be heard and not seen. Then follows a medley of sputtering, cackling, whispering and scolding notes, frequently interspersed with loud whistles, and continued as the bird runs, hops, or flies in the densest thicket, with a pertinacity that knows no fatigue. He tells you that your gun won't shoot, that it is a flint-lock, that your ramrod is broken, that you shot it at a buzzard, that you haven't got a gun; that you are a bald-headed cripple; that there is a horrid suicide in the bushes, and a big snake and a nasty skunk; that your baby is crying, your house is afire and the bridge broken down; that you have missed the road to the reform farm, and that the poor house is over the creek, and he calls the dogs; says that you have gone to seed; go west and grow up with the country; that you are taking up too much of his valuable time, and that you must excuse him for a moment.

During all this time he remains invisible, or at most, his black eye and mask, or golden breast, appear for a moment as he peers at you from the tangled branches of the brambles, or flashes from branch to branch, dancing an accompaniment to his fantastic notes. And at last, he suddenly appears on the top of a bush not ten feet from you, makes a profound bow, and with a derisive whisk of his long tail, exposes his immaculate white crissum and dives again into the deepest thicket. You take a long breath and wipe your face, and he returns to the assault from the rear. Should you move on, he follows, and if you approach, he retires, and, keeping at a respectful distance, he laughs defiance, shouts mockery and tantalizing sarcasm. He is a fearful scold, and it is no wonder the inside of his mouth is black.

And Taverner (1906) gives the following character sketch:

With his stealthy elusiveness, wild outpourings of song and fund of vituperation, the Chat is a droll imp. . . . He is full of life and boiling over with animation. It bubbles out of his throat in all manner of indescribable sounds.

He laughs dryly, gurgles derisively, whistles triumphantly, chatters provokingly, and chuckles complacently, all in one breath. He throws himself about through the bush regardless of consequences, never still, scrutinizing the intruder in all attitudes. Viewing him now from under a branch, and then from over it, talking always exictedly, rather incoherently and usually indelicately. In fact, one throat is not sufficient to relieve the pressure of his feelings, and he presses into service his long tail, and with it wig-wags things such as even he, irresponsible little sprite that he is, dare not say out loud.

The chat has a well-deserved reputation for shyness and elusiveness. When the nest is approached, the incubating female will usually slip off it and away without being observed; and she has been said to desert her eggs, or even her young, on slight provocation. But this is not always the case, as is shown by the many excellent photographs that have been taken of the bird at its nest. A. D. DuBois tells me that on three out of nine of the nests examined by him, the sitting bird was quite tame, allowing him to approach quite closely and, in one case, almost to touch her. Gradual and careful approach to the nest gave Petrides (1938) an opportunity to take some fine pictures and to study the home life of the chat. "The blind, a green umbrella tent six and one-half feet high, was first erected some eighteen feet from the nest and moved forward about four feet every other day until, when the eggs were hatched, the tent was only two and one-half feet from the nest. On each visit several leaves were plucked from before the nest until it was well exposed."

His second nest "was approached noisily through the underbrush on six different occasions and the contents lifted out and handled," but the birds did not desert it.

Voice.--To the comments already made on the chat's vocal performances must be added the more serious contribution of Aretas A. Saunders, who says: "The song of the yellow-breasted chat is not only entirely unlike that of any other warbler, but unlike that of any other bird with which I am acquainted. It is long-continued, and consists of a variety of notes and phrases delivered in an irregular, mixed order, with pauses between them. The phrases vary greatly in quality, consisting of whistles, harsh cackles, squawks, squeals, and various explosive noises, not always easy to describe. Some of these are single short notes, short series of notes, or long series, often retarded in time.

"The pitches of these various sounds range from B' to A''', almost two octaves. Songs of individual birds range from three and a half tones to seven and a half, averaging about an octave. The songs are sometimes fairly rapid, and at other times slow. I have one song recorded as 7 phrases in 9 seconds, and another where the average pause between phrases was 6 seconds.

"I have records from 20 different birds, but only those of 11 are believed to be complete, that is, all the phrases commonly used are recorded. These 11 birds each had from 6 to 10 phrases in their song, averaging about 7. Only one bird had10 phrases; of these 5 were single notes, 3 being whistles, 1 harsh, and 1 like a note on an organ; 2 other phrases were of several notes repeated in even time, one whistled, the other very harsh; the other 3 were long series of notes, retarded at the end, two of them whistled but on different pitches, the other like a long rattle. I recorded the singing of this bird, and the order of phrases, as it sang 48 phrases. There was great variety in the arrangement. One phrase was used 11 times, another 10, while 2 other phrases were sung only once, and the others from 2 to 8 times each.

"Not only is the song unusual, but also the manner of singing, for the bird frequently flies from one bush to another while singing, flapping its wings up and down and pumping its tail, with its legs dangling, the line of flight being exceedingly jerky.

"This bird is reported to imitate other birds. I have never heard any thing I believed was an actual imitation, but there are often sounds that suggest the sounds of other birds. I recorded one such as 'like the chuck of a robin,' and another as 'like a note of the yellow-throated vireo,' but I did not consider them to be imitations.

"The chat sings from the time of its arrival in spring until about the third week in July, but I have too few observations to give average dates of cessation."

The yellow-breasted chat, according to Albert R. Brand (1938), has the lowest-pitched voice of any of the warbler family, its highest note being but little above the average frequency of all passerine song; he recorded the highest note as having a frequency of 4,400 vibrations per second, the lowest 1,275 (the lowest of all but the starling and the catbird), and the approximate mean 2,600 vibrations per second (lower than all but three or four others).

Several observers have classed the chat as a mimic, and it certainly gives that impression, but its own vocabulary is so extensive and varied that perhaps it is only an impression; it does not need to learn much from others.

It is a most versatile vocalist and a most persistent singer at times; its voice may be heard at any hour of the day or night, especially on moonlit nights. To try to express its varied notes in syllables is almost hopeless. Mr. Forbush (1929) suggests the following: "C-r-r-r-r-r, whrr, that's it, chee, quack, cluck, yit-yit-yit, now hit it, tr-r-r-r, when, caw, caw, cut, cut, tea-boy, who, who, mew, mew, and so on till you are tired of listening." Dr. Witmer Stone (1937) heard one give a rapid call like that of a kingfisher. "One singing from inside a wild cherry bush had a trill like that of a tree toad, a pheu, pheu, call like a Greater Yellow-legs, and a strange note resembling a distant automobile horn. One of the other birds sat on the top of a dead bush in full view, all hunched up as if its back were broken and with tail hanging straight down. Every now and then it would stretch up its neck, which appeared very thick and out of proportion, with feathers all ruffled up on end, and utter a triple note hoo-hoo-hoo."

The chat usually sings within the dense thickets in which it hides, or perhaps from the top of some small tree or bush only a few feet above the thicket, but Clarence F. Stone mentions in his notes, sent to me by Verdi Burtch, one that he heard and saw singing in the top of a large tree, 45 feet above the ground.

Dr. Daniel S. Gage tells me that he heard a chat give a number of times "a note which we could liken only to the sweet tone of a silver bell."

Field marks.--Its large size, heavy bill, and long tail will distinguish the eastern yellow-breasted chat from any of the other wood warblers, also from the yellow-throated vireo, which it suggests in color pattern, though the chat has no white wing bars. The olive-green upper parts, with no white in wings or tail, the white stripe over the eye, the bright yellow throat and breast, and the pure white abdomen are all diagnostic. Its behavior and, above all, its vocal performances are unlike those of any other bird; as it is more often heard than seen, it is most easily recognized by its noisy voice.

Enemies.--The yellow-breasted chat is a common victim of the cowbird, but it will often desert its nest after the alien egg is deposited. Dr. Friedmann (1929) gives about one hundred records of such parasitism, and mentions only three cases of tolerance, though doubtless there have been many other cases where chats have accepted the eggs, which are about the same size as its own, and have raised the young. He says: "Apparently there is considerable variation in the sensitiveness of Chats around their nests, but the bulk of the evidence goes to show that normally a Cowbird's egg has little chance of ever being hatched by a Yellow-breasted Chat."

Winter.--Dr. Skutch contributes the following account: "During the winter, the yellow-breasted chat spreads over Central America, including both coasts and the lower parts of the highlands, as far as southern Costa Rica. In this country it is rare and I have never seen it; but I knew it as a rather abundant winter resident in the Caribbean lowlands of Honduras, and on both sides of Guatemala. Here I found it on the coffee plantations of the Pacific slope, up to about 3,500 feet above sea-level, in January; and while I have no midwinter record for higher altitudes, on the shore of Lake Atitlan, at 4,900 feet, during the last week of October, I saw two--a number which, considering the retiring habits of the bird, indicates fair abundance.

"The chats arrive in northern Central America toward the end of September. On October 1, 1930, they suddenly became exceedingly numerous in the narrow valley of the Tela River in northern Honduras. As I passed from a dense second-growth thicket to the comparatively open vegetation of the flood-plain of the river, I was greeted by a chorus of chucks and cackles, which reminded me strongly of the sound of a distant flock of purple grackles or red-winged blackbirds; the voices were by no means so loud as those of the blackbirds when chattering close at hand, yet in aggregate they created much the same impression. A numerous party of garrulous yellow-breasted chats had spread out among the trees and vine-tangles of the stony plain. Although they so loquaciously proclaimed their presence, the birds were yet so wary, lurking among the densest tangles, that they were by no means easy to glimpse; but during the course of an hour I saw a number, and watched them forage among the Cecropia and other trees. Among their varied utterances were harsh clucks, as a man makes by clacking his tongue far back in his mouth, to urge a laggard horse, and nasal notes like those of the catbird. How unexpected to come upon a warbler with a voice like a grackle! Soon the chats were well distributed over the valley; and their calls sounded from every side all through the day.

"While migrating, yellow-breasted chats may at times appear in the most surprising situations. On October 5, 1934, I found one among the open shrubbery of the central plaza of the town of Retalhuleu, on the Pacific coast of Guatemala. Without much doubt, this bird used the little park only as a temporary place of rest, and soon moved on to a more sequestered spot.

"When well settled in their winter home, the chats gradually grow less loquacious. The flocks in which they apparently arrive soon disperse; and they live in solitude through the winter months. Avoiding the forest, they hunt through the most tangled thickets, where their presence would scarcely be suspected but for their harsh notes occasionally voiced. They are at all times so secretive that to glimpse one is a feat--or an accident. They linger deep in their vine-smothered thickets until about the middle of April, then return northward. *** "

Yellow-breasted Chat* Icteria virens [Eastern Yellow-breasted Chat]

*Original Source: Bent, Arthur Cleveland. 1953. Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 203: 587-599. United States Government Printing Office