Yellow-breasted Chat

Icteria virens

Although Yellow-breasted Chats are found all across Tennessee, they are frequently overlooked because they keep themselves well hidden in dense brushy vegetation.  The best way to see this bird is in the spring when the male sings his remarkable song from a conspicuous perch.

The song is a jumble of clucks, whistles, cackles, and squawks, occasionally including a mimic of another bird's song.  This bright yellow-breasted songbird was long thought to be the largest of the wood-warblers.  However recent genetic data suggests it is not a warbler at all, but what it is hasn't been resolved.

The Yellow-breasted Chat's summer range extends across the eastern United States and southern Canada, southward to Texas and northern Florida; they are also found in scattered regions across the western United States to very northern Mexico.  Chats winter in Mexico and Central America. They can be found in Tennessee between mid-April and late September.

Description: This medium-sized songbird has a bright yellow chest and throat, solid olive-green back, wings and tail, a white belly, and a long rounded tail. The white around the eye extending to the bill gives the impression of white "spectacles." The female is similar to the male, but her colors are usually not quite as bright.

Length: 7.5"
Wingspan: 9.75"
Weight: 1.88 oz

Voice: The song is an unmusical jumble of clucks, whistles, cackles, and squawks, and occasionally includes a mimic of another bird's song.

Similar Species:

  • Yellow-throated Vireos are smaller, have two white wingbars, and are found in the canopy of deciduous trees.

Habitat: Chats breed in a variety of dense, brushy habitats including shrubby areas along streams, swamps, forest edges, fencerows, recently abandoned farmland, regenerating burned-over forest, and logged areas.

Diet: Small invertebrates, fruits.

Nesting and reproduction: Yellow-breasted Chats are territorial and usually monogamous. During the early breeding season, the male will occasionally perform a flight-song display where he flies up, hovers with exaggerated wingbeats dangling his legs, and then returns to his perch.

Clutch Size: Usually 3 to 5 eggs, with a range of 1 to 6.

Incubation: The female incubates the eggs for 11 to 14 days.

Fledging: Both parents feed the young, which leave the nest in about 10 days after hatching.

Nest: The female builds the bulky cup of grasses, leaves, and weed stems, and lined with finer materials. It is placed low in a blackberry thicket or other dense shrub. Nest heights in Tennessee range from 1 foot to 6 feet, with an average height of 3 feet.

Status in Tennessee: The Yellow-breasted Chat is a common summer resident in low-elevation brushy areas throughout the state. They arrive in mid-April and depart in late September. Yellow-breasted Chat numbers have been declining in the state since the beginning of the Breeding Bird Survey in 1966.

Dynamic map of Yellow-breasted Chat eBird observations in Tennessee

Fun Facts:

  • The Yellow-breasted Chat is one of the few songbirds that will frequently sing at night.
  • Until recently the Yellow-breasted Chat was considered the most atypical New World warbler. The long-standing suspicion that it was not, in fact, a warbler was recently confirmed through genetic studies, but what it is most closely related to has not yet been determined.

Obsolete English Names: long-tailed chat

Best places to see in Tennessee: Yellow-breasted Chats are found in shrubby habitats in every county. They are most abundant on the Cumberland Plateau and in Middle Tennessee.