A large (7 inches), strangely-shaped wood warbler, the Yellow-breasted Chat is most easily identified by its large size, olive-green back, yellow breast and throat, and white eye-ring. Other field marks include a long tail, thick bill, and black legs. Male and female Yellow-breasted Chats are similar to one another in all seasons. The Yellow-breasted Chat breeds in the east-central United States and southern Canada from southern Ontario south to northern Florida and west to Texas. This species also breeds more locally in the western United States and Canada, particularly in Idaho, Washington, Oregon, and Utah. In winter, most Yellow-breasted Chats migrate south to the southern half of Mexico and Central America, although a small number winter in the southern U.S.Yellow-breasted Chats breed along the edges of deciduous or evergreen forests in areas with thickets or low shrubs. During the winter, this species inhabits similar areas along the edges of tropical forests. Yellow-breasted Chats primarily eat insects and other invertebrates, but may also eat fruits and berries when available, particularly during the winter. Due to this species’ preference for habitat with shrubs and other low vegetation, Yellow-breasted Chats are more often heard than seen. Birdwatchers may listen for this species’ song, a strange jumble of whistling notes interspersed with harsher calls, or may look for it moving through the vegetation while foraging for insect prey. Yellow-breasted Chats are primarily active during the day, but, like many migratory songbirds, this species migrates at night.
- Eckerle, Kevin P. and Charles F. Thompson. 2001. Yellow-breasted Chat (Icteria virens), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/575
- Peterson, Roger Tory. Birds of Eastern and Central North America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980. Print.
- eBird Range Map - Yellow-breasted Chat. eBird. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, N.d. Web. 20 July 2012. http://ebird.org/ebird/map/yebcha.
- Icteria virens. Xeno-canto. Xeno-canto Foundation, n.d. Web. 20 July 2012. http://xeno-canto.org/browse.php?query=Icteria+virens.
- Yellow-breasted Chat (Icteria virens). The Internet Bird Collection. Lynx Edicions, n.d. Web. 20 July 2012. http://ibc.lynxeds.com/species/yellow-breasted-chat-icteria-virens.
occurs (regularly, as a native taxon) in multiple nations
Regularity: Regularly occurring
Type of Residency: Breeding
Regularity: Regularly occurring
Type of Residency: Breeding
Global Range: (>2,500,000 square km (greater than 1,000,000 square miles)) BREEDING: southern British Columbia across southern Canada and the northern U.S. to southern Ontario and central New York, south to southern Baja California, to Sinaloa on Pacific slope, to Zacatecas in interior over plateau, to southern Tamaulipas on Atlantic slope, and to Gulf Coast and northern Florida (AOU 1998). See Cadman and Page (1994) for further details on distribution on Canada. NON-BREEDING: southern Baja California, southern Sinaloa, southern Texas, southern Louisiana, and southern Florida south (rarely north to Oregon, Great Lakes, New York, and New England) to western Panama (AOU 1998).
Length: 19 cm
Weight: 26 grams
Habitat and Ecology
Comments: BREEDING: Second growth, shrubby old pastures, thickets, bushy areas, scrub, woodland undergrowth, and fence rows, including low wet places near streams, pond edges, or swamps; thickets with few tall trees; early successional stages of forest regeneration; commonly in sites close to human habitation. Nests in bushes, brier tangles, vines, and low trees, generally in dense vegetation less than 2 m above ground. NON-BREEDING: In winter, establishes territories in young second-growth forest and scrub (Dennis 1958, Thompson and Nolan 1973, Morse 1989).
Non-Migrant: No. All populations of this species make significant seasonal migrations.
Locally Migrant: No. No populations of this species make local extended movements (generally less than 200 km) at particular times of the year (e.g., to breeding or wintering grounds, to hibernation sites).
Locally Migrant: Yes. At least some populations of this species make annual migrations of over 200 km.
Arrives in southern winter range mid- to late September, departs by late April (Stiles and Skutch 1989). Arrives in northern breeding range mainly in late May or early June (early May in Ontario). Departs many breeding areas mainly in July and August, with significant numbers wandering northward prior to migrating southward to winter range; some linger in the north into late fall or sometimes early winter.
Comments: Summer: eats mostly insects gleaned from foliage and, in late summer, also eats small fruits. Winter: gleans foliage for insects and spiders, notably fond of fruit (Stiles and Skutch 1989).
Number of Occurrences
Note: For many non-migratory species, occurrences are roughly equivalent to populations.
Estimated Number of Occurrences: 81 to >300
10,000 to >1,000,000 individuals
Comments: Fairly common in many areas. Population estimates made in the early 1990s for Canada: fewer than 50 breeding pairs in British Columbia, a few thousand pairs in Saskatchewan, 1000-5000 pairs in Alberta, around 50 pairs in Ontario (Cadman and Page, 1994 COSEWIC report).
In southern Indiana, density was 5-8 breeding males per 18 ha of upland deciduous scrub, plus 2-5 territorial nonbreeding males; territory size averaged 1.24 ha (about 3 acres); very few returned to study area in years following first capture; study area was regarded as unfavorable for chats (Thompson and Nolan 1973). Based on other warblers, annual mortality rate probably is 30-60% in adults, 60-90% in post-fledging young (Thompson and Nolan 1973). NON-BREEDING: Sedentary, solitary during winter (Stiles and Skutch 1989).
Life History and Behavior
Comments: Diurnal, though males may sing at night during the breeding season.
Lifespan, longevity, and ageing
In southern British Columbia, most clutches are initiated from mid-May to late June (mainly early to mid-June) (Cannings et al. 1987). Nests with eggs occur primarily in June in Ontario, late May to mid-July in New York (Bull 1974). Some clutches are produced before May 15 in Ohio (Peterjohn and Rice 1991). Clutch size is usually 3-5. Incubation, by the female, lasts 11-15 days. Young are tended by both parents, leave nest at 8-11 days (generally by mid-July in southern British Columbia and Alberta, as early as late June in Ontario and New York, as early as early June in Ohio). Sexually mature in one year. In southern Indiana, nests begun in late June and July were more successful than were nests begun earlier; nearly all nest failures were attributed to predators (Thompson and Nolan 1973).
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Icteria virens
There are 4 barcode sequences available from BOLD and GenBank. Below is a sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species. See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen and other sequences.
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Download FASTA File
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Icteria virens
Public Records: 6
Specimens with Barcodes: 16
Species With Barcodes: 1
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
- 2008Least Concern
- 2004Least Concern
National NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded National Status Rank: N4B - Apparently Secure
Rounded National Status Rank: N5B - Secure
NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded Global Status Rank: G5 - Secure
Reasons: Large breeding range in North America; numerous occurrences; fairly common in many areas; population trends vary among regions, with declines evident in several eastern states, but overall the population is relatively stable.
Global Short Term Trend: Relatively stable (=10% change)
Comments: North American Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) data indicate a significant population decline in eastern North America, 1966-1988; and a significant increase in western North America, 1978-1988 (Sauer and Droege 1992); in North America overall, from 1966-1989, there was a nonsignificant decline averaging 0.8% per year from 1966-1989 (Droege and Sauer 1990), a nonsignificant 9% decline from 1966 to 1993, and a barely significant increase of 8% from 1984 to 1993 (Price et al. 1995). May have declined in south-central and southeastern New York between the early 1900s and mid-1980s (Eaton, in Andrle and Carroll 1988). Numbers have steadily declined in some areas of Ohio, though the range has not changed much since the 1930s (Peterjohn and Rice 1991). Has declined in Indiana and Illinois since the mid-1960s. Has declined along the lower Colorado River with loss of native habitat (Hunter et al. 1988). Canada: thought to be slowly declining due to habitat destruction in British Columbia; populations in Alberta and Saskatchewan apear to be stable; population has declined at Point Pelee National Park in Ontario, which contains a considerable proportion of the province's small population; no longer breeds at Rondeau Provincial Park (Ontario); population on Pelee Island (Ontario) appears to be stable (Cadman and Page 1994).
Degree of Threat: C : Not very threatened throughout its range, communities often provide natural resources that when exploited alter the composition and structure over the short-term, or communities are self-protecting because they are unsuitable for other uses
Comments: Threats include habitat loss due to successional changes and clearing of land for agricultural or residential development. Frequently parasitized by the brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater), but whether this has a significant impact on reproductive success is not well known.
Restoration Potential: Restoration potential is good as long as habitat availability is favorable. Limitations on dispersal ability are unlikely to create problems for restoration or management as the species is adapted to exploiting patchy, short-lived habitats. High turnover of breeding birds and rapid resettlement of experimentally vacated territories testify to the species' ability to colonize new habitat (Thompson and Nolan 1973, Thompson 1977).
Preserve Selection and Design Considerations: In many areas (e.g., eastern and southern part of the range), periodic habitat management is necessary if a preserve is to provide suitable habitat over a long period of time. Large tracts are not likely to be managed solely for this species, but creation of shrubby openings of any shape of greater than five ha, even when surrounded by unfavorable habitat, are sufficient to support breeding populations.
Management Requirements: In the eastern part of the range, provision of early successional habitats is essential (Dennis 1958). Chats can be managed in the east by creating and maintaining shrubby openings of at least five ha in forest. In the eastern and southern portions of the range, abandoned agricultural fields left unmanaged for 10 years and the removal of trees and encouragement of a shrub layer in powerline rights-of-way will create suitable chat habitat. Wherever marginal cropland is abandoned, the species should benefit before canopy closure.
Clear-cuts are probably the best way to create new habitat. Clear-cutting and shelterwood cutting that creates openings of five ha or more will lead to the development of suitable habitat through natural succession in Missouri (Annand and Thompson, unpublished data) and elsewhere. Selective logging in the form of either single-tree selection or group selection does not create openings large enough to attract chats. It is important that shrubs are left after clear-cutting, so clear-cuts should not be burned or treated in any way that results in the total loss of shrubs. Doing so will delay the development of suitable habitat. While chats will tolerate considerable amounts of open grass (Johnston and Odum 1956), some dense shrubbery is essential. Grazing among bushy patches does not seem to deter chats. Similarly, management of powerline rights-of-way should not discourage the development of dense shrubs. Prairie maintenance and restoration efforts that encourage a shrubby transition to surrounding forest (in contrast to a sharp transition) provide suitable chat habitat. In the west, the chat is clearly dependent on shrubby riparian habitat, so maintenance and restoration of riparian areas are essential.
Management Research Needs: More information on the relationship between patch size and chat population size would be useful for designing management schemes.
Effective management requires assessment of the pattern of genetic diversity within the species in order to identify evolutionarily significant units.
More information on the effect of Brown-headed Cowbird parasitism on reproductive success would be useful, but this will be difficult and expensive to obtain. Focusing on identifying evolutionarily significant units and determining the optimal habitat in an area for this habitat specialist are probably the best and most cost-effective approaches.
Little is known about chat habitat requirements and habitat availability during the non-breeding season. The effects, if any, on breeding populations of changes on the wintering grounds are unknown.
Biological Research Needs: Population declines have been documented, especially in the northeastern part of the range, and in the broader coverage of the BBS (Sauer and Droege 1992, Askins 1993). It is difficult to interpret these survey data without knowledge of the availability of suitable habitats. Chats are habitat specialists so that changes in availability of suitable habitat will greatly affect chat populations in a geographic region. Documentation of the amount, size, and age of suitable habitat may be obtainable, especially from publicly owned lands that are being managed for multiple use.
Global Protection: Few to several (1-12) occurrences appropriately protected and managed
Comments: Probably there are many protected occurrences.
The Yellow-breasted Chat (Icteria virens) is a large songbird, formerly considered the most atypical member of the New World warbler family, though the long-standing suspicion is that it does not actually belong there. Its placement is not definitely resolved. It is the only member of the genus Icteria.
Distribution and habitat 
Found throughout North America, from southern-plains of Canada to central Mexico during the summer, these birds mainly migrate to Mexico and Central America, although some of their number may overwinter in coastal areas. This species occurs in areas with dense shrubby growth is common. Today, its habitat often consists of abandoned farmland and other rural areas where overgrown vegetation proliferates.
Yellow-breasted Chats are the largest species of New World warbler. In fact, they can often weigh more than twice as much as their alleged cousins. This species reaches a total length of 17 to 19.1 cm (6.7 to 7.5 in) and a wingspan of 23 to 27 cm (9.1 to 11 in). Body mass can range from 20.2 to 33.8 g (0.71 to 1.19 oz). Among standard measurements, the wing chord is 7.1 to 8.4 cm (2.8 to 3.3 in), the elongated tail is 6.9 to 8.6 cm (2.7 to 3.4 in), the relatively long, heavy bill is 1.3 to 1.6 cm (0.51 to 0.63 in) and the tarsus is 2.5 to 3.1 cm (0.98 to 1.2 in). These birds have olive upperparts with white bellies and bright yellow throats and breasts. Other signature features of Yellow-breasted Chats are its large white eye-rings and blackish legs. If seen, this species is unlikely to be mistaken for any other bird.
The Yellow-breasted Chat is a shy, skulking species of bird, often being only heard but not seen. The breeding habitats of this species are dense, brushy areas and hedgerows. The nests of these birds are bulky cups made of grasses, leaves, strips of bark, stems of weeds and lined with finer grasses, wiry plant stems, pine needles and sometimes roots and hair. Nests are invariably placed in thick shrubs and often only about 2.5 m (8.2 ft) above the ground. They will lay from 3 to 5 creamy white eggs with reddish brown blotches or speckles, incubated by the female, hatch in 11 to 12 days. Both parents tend the young, who fledge in approximately 8 to 11 days. Chats are apparently vigilant guards of their nests, as parasitism by Brown-headed Cowbirds is not as frequent as with other cup nest builders. However, they are not as monogamous as other warblers. In one study in central Kentucky, DNA fingerprinting revealed that 17% of 29 Yellow-breasted Chat nestlings were not sired by the male of the social pair and 33% of 9 broods contained at least 1 extra-pair nestling.
Yellow-breasted Chats are ominvorous birds, and forage in dense vegetation. Mostly, this species feeds on insects and berries, including blackberries and wild grapes. Insects of up to moderate sizes, including grasshoppers, bugs, beetles, weevils, bees, wasps, tent caterpillars, ants, moths and mayflies, are typically predated and will be gleaned from dense vegetation. Other invertebrates, including spiders, are occasionally eaten as well. Uniquely for a passerine of its size, the chat occasionally grips food with it feet before it eats.
The song of this bird is an odd, variable mixture of cackles, clucks, whistles and hoots. Their calls are harsh chak's. Unlike most warblers, this species has been known to mimic the calls of other birds. Thus, less experienced field birdwatchers sometimes overlook chats after mistaken their song for species such as Gray Catbirds and Brown Thrashers, which share similar habitat preferences and skulking habits, though are generally much more abundant. During the breeding season, Chats are at their most conspicuous as they will usually sing from exposed locations and even fly in the open while gurgling their songs.
Yellow-breasted Chats are declining in eastern North America due to habitat loss, which is caused primarily from deforestation and urban development. This species, though less vulnerable than other cup-nesters, is still sometimes victim to brood parasitism from Brown-headed Cowbirds that have taken advantage of the fragmentation of Eastern forests to expand their range in the last century. However, the species still occurs over a wide range and is considered to be of Least Concern.
- "Icteria virens". Integrated Taxonomic Information System. Retrieved 27 February 2006.
- Sibley, David Allen. The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, ISBN 0-679-45121-8
- BirdLife International (2012). "Icteria virens". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2012.1. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 16 July 2012.
- Jon Curson, David Quinn and David Beadle. 1994. New World Warblers: An Identification Guide, ISBN 0-7136-3932-6.
- Yellow-breasted Chat. Wbu.com. Retrieved on 2012-08-24.
- Yellow-breasted Chat, Life History, All About Birds – Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Allaboutbirds.org. Retrieved on 2012-08-24.
- Icteria virens (Yellow-breasted Chat). Iucnredlist.org. Retrieved on 2012-08-24.
Names and Taxonomy
Comments: Placement of genus in Parulidae is frequently questioned (AOU 1998). Indeed, analyses of mitochondrial and nuclear DNA by Lovette and Bermingham (2002) show that this genus does not belong with most of the genera in the Parulidae, but instead is most closely allied with the Bobolink, Dolichonyx.