Spotlight on the Western Yellow Breasted Chat

Okanagan Similkameen Conservation Alliance  chat
“You never know WHAT this bird will say!...or when they will say it!” - due to its unusual calls, mimics other birds, and calls in middle of night as well as the day.

Latin Name: Icteria Virens Auricollis (BC subspecies)
Federal Status: Endangered
Provincial Status: Red Listed (endangered or threatened)

Characteristics


Approximately 18 cm in length and weighing about 25 grams, the Yellow-breasted Chat is a robin sized bird with striking coloration. It has a lemon yellow chest, white belly, a black head, and white ‘spectacles’. It gets its ‘Chat’ name from the males raucous and continual calls of chatter, whistles, hoots, and chortles. When attempting to attract a mate, this bird will call continuously from a high perch for three hours at a time. It also displays with a bouncing flapping display while it continues to chatter. Chats often sing at night and will mimic the sounds of other birds (see Syilx story).

Migration

Chats are migratory and usually return to the Okanagan around the third week of May. There are a few records after mid-July, when young birds have fledged, and most birds leave BC by mid-August, but some are still around in September. The Western Yellow-breasted Chat winters from southern Baja, southern Sinaloa, southern Texas and southern Florida, south through Central America to western Panama. There is little information regarding the species on its wintering grounds. They head north to breed by about the middle of April and arrive in BC in mid-May.

Nesting

Western Yellow-breasted Chats nest from mid-May to the third week of June. The females incubate 3-5 eggs for approximately 11 days. Incubation, conducted entirely by the female, takes 11 to 15 days, and the female broods the nestlings. Both parents feed the young, and the nestlings fledge after 8 to 11 days. In the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia, most clutches are initiated in the second week of June, with dates ranging from May 12 to June 23, suggesting that Western Yellow-breasted Chats could raise a second brood if the season is sufficiently long. The nests are large and bulky, but well-concealed. Cup-shaped nests are composed of coarse materials like leaves, shreds of bark, coarse straws and weed stalks and lined with fine grasses, and are located low in dense bushes, usually not more than a metre from the ground.

The Yellow-breasted Chat usually is monogamous. Sometimes they will nest in groups or “colonies” but each pair defends a separate territory. Nests have been found in wild rose shrubs (highest percentage), snowberry, red-osier dogwood and Saskatoon. There now seem to be only five sites remaining in the province that are suitable for breeding:

  1. The south Similkameen Valley, which probably contains the most extensive habitat in the province;
  2. Okanagan River oxbows at north end of Osoyoos Lake;
  3. Okanagan River between Inkaneep Provincial Park and McIntyre Bluff;
  4. Vaseux Lake, primarily at the north end but previously at the south end, as well;
  5. Woodlands along the Okanagan River on the Penticton Indian Reserve.

Diet

During the breeding season, the Yellow-breasted Chat’s diet consists mainly of insects such as weevils, and other beetles, ants, moths, bees, wasps, mayflies and caterpillars. Berries (including wild strawberries, grapes, blackberries, raspberries, whortleberries, and elderberries) make up a large portion of its diet in late summer. Young are fed only insects. The main method of obtaining food during the breeding season is gleaning from plant foliage and occasionally from branches, and although both the male and female are foliage gleaners, female also look for food lower in the shrubbery and on the ground.

Habitat

The Yellow-breasted Chat is a bird of “edge habitat” where forests meet clearings, along fencerows, dense thickets and brambles in low wet places near streams, pond edges, or swamps and in old overgrown clearings and fields. It nests in small trees such as trembling aspen, saplings or bushy tangles, favouring wild rose, hawthorn and snowberry thickets, but they also use elderberry and saskatoon bushes.

Distribution

In British Columbia, the Yellow-breasted Chat is restricted to the valley bottoms of the south Okanagan and Similkameen valleys from Vaseux Lake and Cawston, southward to the International border. Almost all known sightings or nest records are located along the Okanagan and Similkameen rivers mainstem rather than in side valleys. Outside that area there is only one breeding record and 15 sight records, mostly of singing males. In the Thompson-Okanagan they are locally common in a few remaining habitat patches (River Road, Oliver; Okanagan River oxbows from Oliver to Osoyoos Lake) but are rare elsewhere. Museum records indicate that the Yellow-breasted Chat has been sighted on Vancouver Island, Kamloops, Armstrong, Chase, and Merritt, and as far north as Clinton in the interior.

Threats

  • Habitat loss and degradation which includes agricultural and urban development, habitat conversion and fragmentation. 92% of the riparian areas have been lost in the South Okanagan Similkameen. The lowland riparian thickets favoured by chats usually are cleared for agricultural and residential/industrial developments. This has had a significant impact on the decline of the Yellow Breasted Chat population.
  • Livestock grazing is also a major threat as much of the wild rose nesting patches become trampled by cattle.
  • Use of pesticides. Western Yellow-breasted Chat that establish territories next to farmlands, particularly orchards, may be affected by pesticide applications either indirectly (through loss of insect food) or directly (through direct contact with pesticides).
  • Brown-headed Cowbird nest parasitism. The cowbirds lay their eggs in the nests of other birds including chats, resulting in fewer young chats being raised each year.
  • Human disturbance.

What you can do to help the Western Yellow Breasted Chat

  • Conserve and protect natural habitat especially rose thickets on your property. Consult with a local stewardship organization for further information.
  • Follow the Riparian Area Regulation.
  • Never degrade or destroy natural habitat. Remember that the Species at Risk Act (SARA) protects this bird as well as other endangered wildlife.
  • Limit or refrain from pesticide use as it is harmful to this bird and other wildlife.
  • Limit livestock grazing in riparian zones.


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