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yellow-breasted chat

Icteria virens

What do they look like?

Yellow-breasted chats are about 18.0 cm long. Males have a wingspan of 74 to 81 mm, while females have a wingspan of 72 to 76 mm. Females of this species tend to weigh between 22.6 to 30.9 g, which is larger than males, who range between 22.2 to 29.5 g. Yellow-breasted chats have a yellow-orange chin and throat. Their faces are grayish with white eye-crescents on the lower eyelids. During the breeding season, males and females have solid black bills, but they can have small, light stripes or dots on either side of their lower mandible toward the base of their bill. As breeding season ends, these stripes widen and begin to take over the solid black bill. Males and females have black foreheads and the facial markings behind their eyes fade to gray and black. As the season passes, males lose a great amount of facial color. In juvenile chats, their upper bodies are dull grayish or olive brown and they have olive brown wings and tails. Likewise, their chin and throat are dull white with a little splash of yellow. (Cooper and Ritchison, 2005; Dennis, 1958; Dulisse, et al., 2005; Eckerle and Thompson, 2001; Mays, et al., 2004; McKibbin and Bishop, 2010)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • female larger
  • sexes colored or patterned differently
  • male more colorful
  • Range mass
    22.2 to 30.9 g
    0.78 to 1.09 oz
  • Average length
    18.0 cm
    7.09 in
  • Range wingspan
    72 to 81 mm
    2.83 to 3.19 in

Where do they live?

Yellow-breasted chats (Icteria virens) have a very large range. During the breeding season, they extend from southern Canada to Mexico, in southern Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and the United States. In the winter seasons, they range from southern Baja California, to southern Texas, and south to western Panama. In the eastern United States, their range includes northeastern South Dakota, eastern Nebraska, eastern Kansas, and eastern Texas. They are also native to southeastern British Columbia. Yellow-breasted chats migrate from southern Mexico, Central America, and to the Atlantic coast each fall as well. (Cooper and Ritchison, 2005; Dennis, 1958; Dulisse, et al., 2005; Eckerle and Thompson, 2001; Mays, et al., 2004; McKibbin and Bishop, 2010)

What kind of habitat do they need?

Yellow-breasted chats are found in dense forests and in shrubby, brushy habitats along streams, swamps, forest edges, and thickets of recently abandoned farmlands. They live in flowering dogwood, red cedar, and sumac trees. They are also found in fields and on fencerows. Gullies, wetlands, and orchards provide shelter and food for this species. They can be found from 250 to 800 m in elevation. (Cooper and Ritchison, 2005; Dennis, 1958; Dulisse, et al., 2005; Eckerle and Thompson, 2001; Mays, et al., 2004; McKibbin and Bishop, 2010)

  • Range elevation
    250 to 800 m
    820.21 to 2624.67 ft

How do they reproduce?

Yellow-breasted chats mostly mate by pairing one male with one female; however, these birds sometimes have multiple mating partners. The mating quality of a male is determined by their size, the number of clutches they have had in the past, and the songs they sing. Specifically, males with longer wing chords tend to have more young. Because male chats spend less time singing after pairing with females, singing likely plays a major role in attracting a mate. These birds also use songs to establish territories. In addition, males who sang more often and at different pitches defended their mates and territories better than males who didn’t sing at different pitches and sang less often. (Burhans and Thompson, 1999; Cooper and Ritchison, 2005; Dennis, 1958; Dulisse, et al., 2005; Dussourd and Ritchison, 2003; Ficken and Ficken, 1962; Mino, et al., 2011; Morgan, et al., 2007; Ritchison, 1988; Thompson and Nolan, 1973)

Yellow-breasted chats breed in many habitats, but they commonly breed near river banks. In these habitats, they use wild rose for nesting and foraging. In an average breeding area, 5 to 8 males breed with 5 to 10 females. Yellow-breasted chats breed once a year around the warmer seasons. Around the last two weeks of May, females begin building round open-nests, which are found 2.5 m above the ground. Nests are made of grasses, leaves, bark, and pine needles. Eggs are laid through July. Males arrive on the breeding grounds days before females, but females build the nest. Females lay 3 to 6 eggs per clutch, with an 11-day incubation period. On average, the young reach the fledging stage 9 days after hatching. After the young leave the nest, they stay nearby until they are able to forage for themselves. Once they are independent from their parents, yellow-breasted chats leave the nesting area. (Burhans and Thompson, 1999; Cooper and Ritchison, 2005; Dennis, 1958; Dulisse, et al., 2005; Dussourd and Ritchison, 2003; Ficken and Ficken, 1962; Mino, et al., 2011; Morgan, et al., 2007; Ritchison, 1988; Thompson and Nolan, 1973)

  • How often does reproduction occur?
    Yellow-breasted chats breed once a year around the warmer seasons.
  • Breeding season
    Yellow-breasted chats breed from May to July.
  • Range eggs per season
    3 to 6
  • Average time to hatching
    11 days
  • Average fledging age
    9 days

Regardless of the brood size, male and female chats feed nestlings at the same rate. As the nestlings mature, they are fed different prey, starting with insects, then adding berries and a greater amount of prey. Parents bring small or medium-sized prey, about the size of their beaks, back to their nestlings. However, as the nestling age, parents bring prey that is twice the size of their beaks. Males and females both bring similar prey species. While males and females feed the young, females spend more time brooding the nestlings, although females spend less time brooding them as they get older. Their nests are more likely to be successful when both parents care for the young. (Burhans and Thompson, 1999; Cooper and Ritchison, 2005; Dennis, 1958; Dulisse, et al., 2005; Dussourd and Ritchison, 2003; McKibbin and Bishop, 2010; Mino, et al., 2011; Morgan, et al., 2007; Thompson and Nolan, 1973)

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • male parental care
  • female parental care
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male

How long do they live?

Yellow-breasted chats can live up to 8.9 years in the wild. These birds have not been studied in captivity. (Eckerle and Thompson, 2001; Kathleen, 1983; Terres, 1980)

  • Average lifespan
    Status: wild
    8.9 years

How do they behave?

Yellow-breasted chats are social and active during the day. In the breeding season, their songs are low-pitched with more diverse phrases. They sing at night, and mimic other bird sounds. They may know up to 41 to 100 different song types. Males share their songs, which allow them to sing and respond to each other. This sort of interaction establishes territory and dominance. In addition, adult chats leave their complete molt near the breeding grounds, while young chats scatter their complete molt. (Burhans and Thompson, 1999; Cooper and Ritchison, 2005; Dennis, 1958; Dulisse, et al., 2005; Dussourd and Ritchison, 2003; McKibbin and Bishop, 2010; Mino, et al., 2011; Morgan, et al., 2007; Thompson and Nolan, 1973)

  • Range territory size
    400.00 to 13000 m^2

Home Range

Yellow-breasted chats have a summer home range that is larger than their territory. For example, in a Sacramento Valley riparian area, 10 birds were found per 40 ha (100 ac). As for their actual territory, 28 territories averaging 1.3 ha (3.1 ac) were reported in an abandoned Indiana field. Territories averaging 0.12 ha (0.3 ac), and varying from 0.04 to 0.28 ha (0.1 to 0.7 ac) have been reported in an Illinois swamp thicket. Territories varying from 0.5 to 1.0 ha (1.25 to 2.5 ac) have likewise been reported in abandoned fields and fencerows in Virginia. (Brewer, 1955; Dennis, 1958; Gaines, 1974; Thompson and Nolan, 1973)

How do they communicate with each other?

Yellow-breasted chats mainly communicate by singing. When males are near females, they tend to sing to each other. Males sing more often than females during the breeding season. Males can mimic many sounds like car alarms, musical melodies, any type of human-made sound, and other bird calls. Outside of breeding season, they are usually a quiet species, which can make them difficult to find because they rarely sing in the open. “Cheow” is a sound yellow-breasted chats make when they are protecting their offspring. Their sounds or calls are similar to a whistle, gurgle, chuckle, grunt, cat call, or rattle. Yellow-breasted chats have a yellow red-orange throat and breast plumage that reflect strongly under ultraviolet light, which can be a type of visual communication. (Cooper and Ritchison, 2005; Dennis, 1958; Dulisse, et al., 2005; Eckerle and Thompson, 2001; Mays, et al., 2004; McKibbin and Bishop, 2010)

What do they eat?

Adult yellow-breasted chats eat small invertebrates, grasshoppers, fruits, and berries. Their young are usually fed moth and butterfly larvae. They are good at grabbing prey with their feet, eating beetles, weevils, bees, caterpillars, and wasps. They also eat many fruits like strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, and grapes. (Cooper and Ritchison, 2005; Dennis, 1958; Dulisse, et al., 2005; Eckerle and Thompson, 2001; Mays, et al., 2004; McKibbin and Bishop, 2010)

  • Animal Foods
  • insects
  • terrestrial non-insect arthropods
  • Plant Foods
  • fruit

What eats them and how do they avoid being eaten?

Nest predation is the major cause of nest failure in yellow-breasted chats. Yellow-breasted chats singing near their nest can attract predators, which may prey upon eggs and nestlings. When nests are destroyed by predators, females usually build another nest near a neighboring male, or in other cases, they might flee the area and not return. If they don’t return, another female fills the space. Common predators of yellow-breasted chats include western scrub-jays, Virginia opossums, gopher snakes, Argentine ants, dusky-footed woodrats, raccoons, and in rare cases, coyotes. (Burhans and Thompson, 1999; Eckerle and Thompson, 2001; Peterson, et al., 2004; Thompson and Nolan, 1973)

What roles do they have in the ecosystem?

Yellow-breasted chats experience a high rate of nest parasitism. This occurs when a nest parasite such a bronzed cowbirds, black-billed cuckoos, or brown-headed cowbirds watch nest building activities and lay their eggs inside yellow-breasted chat nests. Brown-headed cowbird’s eggs look very similar to yellow-breasted chat eggs due to the similar dotted patterns; therefore, they are less likely to boot the cowbird eggs out of their nest. As a result of parasitism, brown-headed cowbirds are the leading cause of nest and fledging failure for yellow-breast chats. Cowbird traps are valuable tools to reduce the failure of host nests. (Lowther, 1979; Morrison and Averill-Murray, 2002)

Commensal or parasitic species (or larger taxonomic groups) that use this species as a host

Do they cause problems?

There are no known adverse effects of yellow-breasted chats on humans.

How do they interact with us?

In a 1980 survey 27.8% of respondents purchased birdseed in the previous year, and 6.4% bought birdfeeders. Across the United States in 1980, more than 25 million people purchased birdseed, spending over $517 million dollars. Over $20 million was spent on birdhouses. Purchases like these support songbirds like yellow-breasted chats, which may visit feeders. (Mangun and Shaw, 1984)

  • Ways that people benefit from these animals:
  • ecotourism

Are they endangered?

According to the IUCN Red List, yellow-breasted chats are of “least concern.” This means they are not listed as threatened, vulnerable, or endangered. The population is considered stable and no active conservation programs are in place for this bird. (BirdLife International, 2012; Eckerle and Thompson, 2001)

Contributors

Darius Brown (author), Radford University, Karen Powers (editor), Radford University, Leila Siciliano Martina (editor), Animal Diversity Web Staff.

References

BirdLife International, 2012. "Icteria virens" (On-line). IUCN 2013. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. Accessed April 04, 2014 at http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/22722057/0.

Bleitz, D. 1959. Yellow-breasted chat parasitized by tick. The Wilson Bulletin, 71/1: 95.

Brewer, R. 1955. Size of home range in eight bird species in a southern Illinois swamp-thicket. The Wilson Bulletin, 67/2: 140-141.

Burhans, D., F. Thompson. 1999. Habitat patch size and nesting success of yellow-breasted chats. The Wilson Bulletin, 111/2: 210-215.

Cooper, S., G. Ritchison. 2005. Nestling provisioning by male and female yellow-breasted chats: No relationships between morphology and parental care/ (machos y hembras de Icteria virens como proveedores: No hay relacion entre la morfologia y el cuidado parental). Journal of Field Ornithology, 76/3: 298-302.

Dennis, J. 1967. Fall departure of the yellow-breasted chat (Icteria virens) in eastern North America. Bird-Banding, 38/2: 130-135.

Dennis, J. 1958. Some aspects of the breeding ecology of the yellow-breasted chat (Icteria virens). Bird-Banding, 29/3: 169-183.

Dulisse, J., S. Ogle, M. Machmer. 2005. First nest record for yellow-breasted chat (Icteria virens auricollis) in southeastern British Columbia. Northwestern Naturalist, 86/3: 160-162.

Dussourd, N., G. Ritchison. 2003. Singing behavior of male yellow-breasted chats: Repertoires, rates, reproductive success, and a comparison with other wood-warblers. The Wilson Bulletin, 115/1: 52-57.

Eckerle, K., C. Thompson. 2001. Yellow-breasted chat. The Birds of North America Online, 575: N/A. Accessed February 07, 2014 at http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/575/articles/introduction.

Ficken, M., R. Ficken. 1962. Some aberrant characters of the yellow-breasted chat, Icteria virens. The Auk, 79/4: 718-719.

Gaines, D. 1974. A new look at the nesting riparian avifauna of the Sacramento Valley, California. West Birds, 61-80: 5.

Kathleen, K. 1983. Longevity records of North American birds: Remizidae through Parulidae. Journal of Field Ornithology, 54: 287-294.

Lowther, P. 1979. Nest selection by brown-headed cowbirds. The Wilson Bulletin, 91/1: 118-122.

Mangun, W., W. Shaw. 1984. Alternative mechanisms for funding nongame wildlife conservation. Public Administration Review, 44/5: 407-413.

Mays, H., K. McGraw, G. Ritchison, S. Cooper, V. Rush, R. Parker. 2004. Sexual dichromatism in the yellow-breasted chat Icteria virens: Spectrophotometric analysis and biochemical basis. Journal of Avian Biology, 35/2: 125-134.

McKibbin, R., C. Bishop. 2010. Habitat characterization of breeding territories of the western yellow-breasted chat in the South Okanagan, British Columbia, Canada. Northwestern Naturalist, 91/2: 145-156.

Mino, C., I. Pollet, C. Bishop, M. Russello. 2011. Genetic mating system and population history of the endangered western yellow-breasted chat (Icteria virens auricollis) in British Columbia, Canada. Canadian Journal of Zoology, 89/10: 881-892.

Morgan, T., C. Bishop, T. Williams. 2007. Yellow-breasted chat and gray catbird productivity in a fragmented western riparian system. The Wilson Journal of Ornithology, 119/3: 494-498.

Morrison, M., A. Averill-Murray. 2002. Evaluating the efficacy of manipulating cowbird parasitism on host nesting success. The Southwestern Naturalist, 47/2: 236-243.

Peterson, B., B. Kus, D. Deutschman. 2004. Determining nest predators of the least Bell's vireo through point counts, tracking stations, and video photography / determinación de los depredadores de los nidos de vireo bellii pusillus attravés de conteos de punto, estaciones de muestreo y videos. Journal of Field Ornithology, 75/1: 89-95.

Ritchison, G. 1988. Responses of yellow-breasted chats to the songs of neighboring and non-neighboring conspecifics (respuesta de lcteria virens al canto de conespecificos vecinales y no-vecinales). Journal of Field Ornithology, 59/1: 37-42.

Terres, J. 1980. The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. New York: Knopf.

Thompson, C., V. Nolan. 1973. Population biology of the yellow-breasted chat (Icteria virens L.) in southern Indiana. Ecological Monographs, 43/2: 145-171.

 
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Brown, D. 2014. "Icteria virens" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed November 20, 2018 at http://www.biokids.umich.edu/accounts/Icteria_virens/

BioKIDS is sponsored in part by the Interagency Education Research Initiative. It is a partnership of the University of Michigan School of Education, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, and the Detroit Public Schools. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant DRL-0628151.
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