The Wonderfully Weird Yellow-breasted Chat

My list of favorite birds is fairly extensive. I’ve been fascinated by the stark beauty and nomadic lifestyle of the Snowy Owl my entire life. The primeval splendor of the legendary Southern Cassowary surpassed my sky high expectations when I finally met the beast in the flesh, and the dashing Rainbow Bee-eater earned extra significance for me when it marked the milestone of my life list reaching 1,000 species. The brilliance of the Common Raven, the elegance of the Swallow-tailed Kite, and the haunting song of the Common Loon all speak to me on a deeply personal level, to say nothing of the various cuckoos, nightbirds, seabirds, and others that fill out the upper levels of my quality rankings. A common theme I’ve noticed is that many of my preferred birds combine striking appearance with unusual ecology or behavior. With that in mind, it comes as little surprise that the remarkable Yellow-breasted Chat has carved out a space for itself in the top tier of my favored avians.

The chat is a true birder’s bird. Most non-birding members of the general public have probably never even heard of this species, and few would ever find themselves in the right kind of place to stumble upon one by chance. Yellow-breasted Chats can be challenging to find even with dedicated search effort, largely owing to their preference for densely vegetated, brushy habitat with nearly impenetrable tangles. Once discovered, however, they display animated antics that have charmed many a naturalist. Their jaunty, cocked tails and prominent white spectacle markings lend them a distinctive, expressive appearance, further enhanced by the boldly contrasting plumage of the brilliant golden throat, the clean white underbelly, and the camouflaged olive-green of the upperparts.

Though they are frequently skulky and silent during migration and the winter months, Yellow-breasted Chats can be shockingly conspicuous in the breeding season. Males post up on high perches, belting out chaotic, improvisational songs that feature a blend of hoots, growls, whistles, chatters, purrs, cackles, mewls, squawks, and mimicry of other species. They regularly launch into an impressive song flight, flapping dramatically with exaggerated tail pumps all while constantly vocalizing in midair. These musical performances sometimes continue long into the dark of the night, which may help passing nocturnal migrants locate suitable habitat on the ground below. With this varied repertoire of bizarre noises taken into account, the “chat” portion of the species moniker is clearly every bit as apt as “yellow-breasted” is. 

One of the most intriguing details about this species is the turbulent history of its taxonomic classification. For decades, Icteria virens was designated a member of the wood-warbler family Parulidae, but it was understandably considered to be an aberrant outlier. This placement never quite sat right with many birders and ornithologists, as the chat’s structure and behavior are so wildly different from anything else in the tribe. Nebulous comments in field guides and checklists that the bird “might not belong” were a gross oversimplification of more than a century of scientific disagreements about its true affinities. In-depth genetic studies of New World passerines revealed that the Yellow-breasted Chat inhabits a distinct branch of the tree of life that is sister to the family Icteridae, which includes blackbirds, orioles, meadowlarks, oropendolas, and others. Some authorities have assigned the chat to that family as well, but the American Ornithological Society presently recognizes the species as the sole representative of a monotypic family: Icteriidae. 

The treatment of the chat as the only member of its own taxonomic clan nicely highlights its unique evolutionary history. Under this arrangement, it is one of just two monotypic avian families that are endemic to North America, with the other being the Ocotero (better known by the doubly inaccurate name Olive Warbler). While the placement of this bizarre bird is gradually coming into clearer focus, there are undeniably still some uncertainties to resolve. In September 2019, the birding world was rocked by the discovery of an apparent chat-oriole hybrid in San Bernardino, California. This extra-peculiar individual, affectionately dubbed the Choriole, has established a territory at San Timoteo Creek and gradually molted into stunning adult plumage over the intervening years. It was even captured for a DNA sample in June 2021, which will hopefully shed some light on the details of its exact parentage. The mindblowing existence of this interfamilial hybrid serves to illustrate just how complex and confusing the process of evolution is, and how many gaps there are in our understanding of the natural world!

Though I had admired illustrations of the species in bird books throughout my childhood, Yellow-breasted Chats are rare enough in New York that I didn’t personally encounter one until I was an adult. The core of their range lies to the south and west of the Empire State, but they still occur as regular but scarce migrants and occasional overwinterers. My lifer observation finally came from Higbee Beach, New Jersey in May 2014, when I was participating in the Cape May County division of the World Series of Birding with Cornell’s Team Redhead. After graduating from college and moving back to Long Island, I soon found that I have a particularly lucky knack for finding these quirky creatures. A cooperative individual I discovered at the Jones Beach Coast Guard Station in October 2015 served as my formal reintroduction to the local birding community, with many birders converging on the site to enjoy my bird for themselves. I haven’t missed the species for a year list since then, and I’ve had the good fortune to self-find quite a few of them. I attribute this success to my penchant for thorough birding in scrubby coastal habitats, which puts me in appropriate places to bump into these lovable weirdos consistently. Visits to their southern strongholds have also provided opportunities to observe displaying males in action, including a memorable stroll along Sonoita Creek in Patagonia, Arizona that turned up more than two dozen of the raucous songsters.

This year has proven to be an exceptional one for chatty goodness. My first sighting of 2021 arrived on May 8th, as one of the 102 species my friends and I recorded in Central Park during our Global Big Day efforts. I subsequently enjoyed the company of several birds on territory in extreme western Maryland when I headed down for my youngest sister’s graduation from West Virginia University. The most unexpected and unusual chat encounter of the year took place while I was volunteering with NYC Audubon to monitor migration activity at the Tribute in Light, a sobering and unforgettable experience. Although unfavorable winds meant that overall numbers of birds observed in the beams were fairly low, we still documented a number of extraordinary species on the move throughout our overnight vigil. The biggest surprise of the bunch was a Yellow-breasted Chat that I photographed in active nocturnal migration, silently winging its way south through the heart of Manhattan. Witnessing this often hidden aspect of life for one of my favorite species, in such an awe-inspiring context, was a genuine honor.

I briefly crossed paths with a one-day-wonder chat in Central Park during the final days of September, and October delivered the most incredible views of the species in my entire life thus far. On the 26th, Adrian Burke discovered an extremely cooperative individual at Verizon Plaza, a truly tiny micropark less than a block west of renowned migrant trap Bryant Park. I rode the subway a few extra stops on my commute home to see if I could connect with the bird, and I sure was glad that I did! This Yellow-breasted Chat was stunningly confiding, offering an up-close-and-personal experience that is typically impossible with a bird that so often keeps to dense, tangled cover. The bold, flashy attitude of this colorful character was on full display as it scrounged around the sidewalks and plantings in search of scraps. At one point it dragged a discarded apple core into the bushes to feast in peace, and I also saw it going toe-to-toe with the local House Sparrows to displace them from some desirable crumbs. The photo ops were simply unparalleled. I was in chat heaven! 

I couldn’t resist making a few repeat visits in the following days to spend a little more time with this delightful visitor. Jacqi accompanied me to log her first sighting of the species, commenting approvingly on how bouncy and vibrant the bird was. We even got to watch the chat settle in for a nap once it finished foraging, fluffing up its feathers and tucking its head behind a wing to form an adorable orb. It’s always a treat to enjoy the company of such a remarkable, engaging animal, and this singularly accommodating individual provided an unforgettable experience. From its eccentric behavior to its puzzling taxonomy, the Yellow-breasted Chat is a uniquely charming bird. Its place among my favorite critters is well-earned, and a pleasant chat will never fail to brighten my day. I’m already eagerly looking forward to my next encounter!