As a songster, noisemaker and raconteur, he has few rivals in North America. Perhaps the Mockingbird, a thrasher or two, the Starling. But for staying power, variation in theme and tone and tempo, the Yellow-breasted Chat is exemplar. Our Chat is to typical birdsong what George Antheil was to classical music. From mere violin and horn and piano with the Chat we find ourselves faced with hammer on anvil, airplane engines, grinding gears, clearing sewer pipes. And all “played” with an energy and assurance that can draw your attention from thirty yards or more. The Chat whose performance Icaught today was along Bear Creek in the dense berry tangle (another argument for not being too strict about ‘only native plants’). A simple pish brought him into view. A couple more lured him ever higher until he was twelve feet up on a nearly bare branch, singing and scolding, warning and elating the large, slow-moving critter with the camera.
He is designated Icteria virens by science. He is alone in his genus. Other birds are commonly called “chat” but aren’t closely related. His DNA apparently is as unique as his mouthing off. Never at a loss for words himself, YB Chat can be a challenge to other wordsmiths.
A fine contemporary bird writer, Peter Dunne, says in his FIELD GUIDE COMPANION: “Song is a loud, unhurried, persistent and varied ensemble of repeated and single-note utterances….” In this case utterances is an unmitigated cop-out. When my dog grunts, that’s an utterance.
Two centuries ago, Alexander Wilson was a consummate bird man in America, and a practiced poet. Here’s his go at the Chat: “This is a very singular bird. In its voice and manners, and the habit it has of keeping concealed, while shifting and vociferating around you, it differs from most other birds with which I am acquainted, and has considerable claims to originality of character… When he has take up his residence…he becomes very jealous of his possessions, and seems offended at the least intrusion, scolding…in a great variety of odd and uncouth monosyllables, which it is difficult to describe….”
Audubon himself recognized the Chat as a performer to rival himself: “…as soon as they have arrived, they give free vent to their song at all hours of the day, renewing it at night when the weather is clam…sometimes the sounds are scarcely louder than a whisper, now they acquire strength, deep guttural notes roll in slow succession as if produced by the emotion of surprise, then others clear and sprightly glide after each other, until suddenly, as if the bird has become confused, the voice becomes a hollow bass….”
In 1914 Florence Merriam Bailey wrote, “The chat’s coming in the spring is like the arrival of a brass band.” With a couple airplane engines and those clogged pipes thrown in for counterpoint.
The Chat is a widespread breeder across North America though not found in most of Canada or our own northern tier of states. It does breed well into the Canadian Great Plains. Most Chat winter in Mexico and Central America. They often breed near wet places and streams. They do not like true forest, preferring heavy thickets and brush. Once territory is established the songs are over until the next spring.