Yellow-breasted Chat – Another Reason to Appreciate Weedy Old Fields

Around 11:30 this morning, I walked along the road by the Old Field just outside our neighborhood. I stopped to listen for a few minutes to a White-eyed Vireo singing from the tangled undergrowth around the trees, chik! a-peri-oo chik!

The sun was warm, and my thoughts sort of drifted off, absent-mindedly noticing that the coral-colored wild sorrel is just beginning to come out along the edges of the field, and watching a small dusty-orange butterfly skimming the grass and weeds. So as I walked past a small overgrown patch of land on the other side of the road from the field – with a prominent For Sale sign on the edge of it – at first I didn’t pay any attention to some funny hoarse and rolling calls coming from low in the bushes – a kind of cronk – chet-chet-chet-chet-chet – creeek – chet-chet-chet-chet-chet – churr – interspersed with other sounds. I was just listening to it, kind of amused, when I suddenly stopped and realized what it was – a Yellow-breasted Chat.

It wasn’t hard to find, singing from the dense branches on the lowest part of a large bush, almost on the ground. The ripe, golden-yellow throat and breast blazed through the tangle of limbs like a small sun, and the white spectacles around its eyes looked bright. His throat swelled like a balloon when he sang cronk! and his long tail quivered as he sang chet-chet-chet-chet-chet.

I don’t know why the song of a Yellow-breasted Chat is so easy to overlook. It’s not musical, but it’s quite unusual. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t sound like one bird singing, but more as if there were four or five different birds making odd calls in the shrubs. The species account in Birds of North America* suggests that its “skulking, secretive nature” is the main reason it’s seldom seen, together with the fact that its habitat is brushy, dense, and often “impenetrable and unattractive.”

The kind of habitat a Yellow-breasted Chat prefers is overgrown, shrubby places like this, where a tree canopy has not yet developed. This kind of habitat naturally doesn’t last for many years, so in the best of times Yellow-breasted Chats must be adapted to finding new homes as their old areas grow into woodlands. Today, as more and more vacant land gets developed, they might have an increasingly difficult time finding the habitat they need – though at this point they’re not considered endangered or threatened in most of their range in North America.

I think the pleasure of seeing and hearing a Yellow-breasted Chat is another good reason to appreciate weedy “old fields” and vacant patches of land, and a reminder that even the most abused piece of land is alive, and may provide a haven for interesting and even beautiful wildlife species.

*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.

Leave a Reply