Yellow-breasted Chat (Icteria virens) By Josh Hill
What bird was once classified as a Wood Warbler but was recently dropped from that group? What “warbler like bird “makes so much noise, and behaves so oddly it is now re-classified in its very own family: Icteriidea? What bird is described as vocalizing with the “fluidity of improvisational Jazz”?
I’ll get to the answers in a bit but first I need to share a “Best Bird of the Day” story.
Several years ago I was contacted via BirdingPals.org by a gentleman from the west coast, a retired Army Veterinarian who was visiting family in hospice in Indiana. His plan for stress relief included birding when and where he could as time permitted. Understanding the delicate nature of his visit I assured him I could host him a few times on an on-call basis so we put a plan together to visit Muscatatuck to “hunt for Chats” as he put it. It was June and we were sure to see and hear a lot of breeding birds at Muscatatuck. I was primed for a day in the field. I was never one for targeting a single species but he was my guest and it was his day so we planned to work hard for a Chat or two.
Truth be told, I was excited to be Chat hunting because they are often a challenge to find, usually by sound, and difficult to see as they nest and live deep in dense brush, they live “a skulkers” life deep in overgrown, brambly margin areas along streams and marshes, successional fields and utility line cuts. I have heard many but honestly, I had only seen one once, a fleeting glimpse on a hike with Don Gorney and crew at Fort Ben. The Yellow Breasted Chat is an enigma. Bright Yellow Breast, beautiful energetic, unique, noisy during breeding then mostly silent. It represents a quandary to those scientists who like everything in a neat orderly fashion.
Picking up Chris at the hotel at 530 am we arrived at Muscatatuck just after sunrise. We had quite a morning of it. Dicksissels, Yellow Throats, Prothonotary Warblers, Buntings, Tanagers, Turkeys and Oriels, and even an Otter made an appearance. Alas no Chats.
Agreeing it was a good day of birding but conceding our missed target we headed out. As we were leaving a gentleman with a camera hailed us and asked us to ID some birds he had snapped. Sure enough there was a Yellow Breasted Chat poised atop a shrub all puffed up declaring his territory. We asked “where did he find the Chat…” “Right by the entrance gate” he said, “I just took that pic five minutes ago,… he was still making very strange noises when I left”
We bypassed the visitor center and staked out the gate area where we could clearly hear the Chat doing his Barking and Growling and Whistles. Sure enough after a few minutes he popped up not 20 yard from us and flew from bush to bush dragging his feet like a Navy Jet landing on a carrier. Clearly, we could see the Moustache and the Spectacles and his puffy throat when making his riotous noises. We watched for 15 minutes before he disappeared into to the tangle he called home for the summer.
I encourage you to research this bird, listen to the vocalizations on the Cornell website and you will understand why they define the vocalization of the Yellow Breasted Chat as “streams of whistles, cackles, chuckles and gurgles with the fluidity of improvisational Jazz.