Bird Watcher's General Store

Yellow-Breasted Chat - 01/04/08


Dear Bird Folks,

I'm wondering if you can identify this very beautiful bird that I believe was killed when it hit my window. I've never seen any bird quite like it. (Here, it's wrapped up in this plastic bag.)

- Vince, Harwich, MA

This is easy, Vince,

You know what they say about a bird in the hand: A bird in the hand is easier to identify than trying to ID a bird from some blurry photograph. And it's a billion times easier than trying to figure out a bird based on someone's vague description. The only thing harder than identifying a bird from a person's description is identifying the same bird from the description given by two people, especially if the two people happen to be married. By the time a married couple has finished arguing over the description, it will be a large-small bird, with short-long legs, all sorts of assorted colors and no beak. (Nobody ever seems to notice the beak.) I should also say that, contrary to the catchy "bird in the hand" phrase, two birds in the bush are worth so much more than any bird in the hand, especially if the bird is wrapped in plastic.

The unfortunate bird you found, Vince, is a Yellow-breasted Chat. You were totally accurate when you mentioned never seeing "any bird quite like it," because there is no other bird quite like a Yellow-breasted Chat. It is the freak of the family...and every family has one. For example, my family has a member who is both a vegetarian and a bird watcher. Imagine having to sit next to that weirdo at the annual barbecue. Hey, wait. That weirdo sounds like me. That explains a lot.

The family that this freakish chat belongs to is that of the wood-warblers. If you have forgotten what a warbler looks like, let me refresh your memory. For the most part warblers are sleek, tiny, energetic birds that eat minute insects with their thin, dainty bills. A chat is nothing like this. They have comparatively large, bulky bodies with thick, heavy bills. The robust chat looks like a warbler that has spent too much time sampling items from Barry Bonds' medicine cabinet.

For years the eggheads in lab coats have argued over which family chats belonged to. Some were convinced that they were vireos, or tanagers, or mockingbirds... anything but a warbler. But after studying the bird's molecular make-up and DNA (see, I wasn't kidding about the lab coats), it was decided that a chat is nothing more than a jumbo-sized warbler and there was nothing the eggheads could do about it.

For those of you who have never seen a chat, you should know that, in spite of all I've said about them being freaks, they are strikingly handsome birds. Both sexes, which are nearly identical, have a warm olive-gray back, a bright white crescent around the eye and a glowing brilliant yellow front. Chats apparently really like the way they look because they don't ever bother changing their plumage color with the seasons. They look pretty much the same year round. Why mess with what works? When it comes to singing, chats are once again oddballs. While the males of most other warblers serenade the females with attractive, musical songs, the male chat spits out a harsh series of scolds, chatters, and squawks. His so-called song, which can be heard both day or night, is so random and disjointed that he sounds like cross between a scat jazz singer and a bad American Idol contestant.

It is during this time of fractured singing that we are most likely to get a glimpse of a chat. During the breeding season the male will often sing out from an exposed branch; but you'd better look quickly because the rest of the year he is nearly invisible. Even with their brilliant yellow plumage chats are notoriously hard to find. There doesn't seem to be a thicket too thick or a brier too briery that a chat won't live in.

During the breeding season chats are typically found south and west of Cape Cod. When winter rolls around most of them head toward Central America. However, each year a few chats blow off the trip to Central America and inexplicably fly to the East Coast, probably just to keep up their rebel image. This when us Cape Codders have the best chance of seeing one. If we have a mild winter the chats will survive by eating fruit and berries. However, if the winter is harsh, these birds are in trouble. They either have to get out before things get too bad, or they will....let's just say they all get out.

The chat is not a rare bird, Vince, but it is fairly uncommon on Cape Cod. But common or not, it's never good when any bird hits a window. That's something that happens all too often. Still, I'm glad you appreciated getting a close look at the Yellow-breasted Chat, even if it was in a plastic bag. Also, thanks for sharing that odd, unusual bird with me. It was like meeting a kindred spirit.



Artwork by Catherine Clark


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