invisible birds, part 2

June 27, 2005

in Birds, Natural history

In part 1 of “invisible birds” I described one of the often-heard-but-rarely-seen species I’ve encountered during my breeding bird atlas work, the Yellow-billed Cuckoo. In keeping with the theme of yellow body parts, let me introduce the Yellow-breasted Chat (Icteria virens).

Chats are the square peg in the round hole of North American wood-warblers.  Some taxonomists have argued that they are so unlike all other warblers that they should not be included in the family Parulidae. DNA and other molecular data argue otherwise. It might be that chats are similar to other warblers only at the microscopic level, for they are an anomolous in many other ways.

For instance, chats are big for warblers — almost catbird-sized. They have various obscure differences in anatomy which differentiate them from other warblers. Wood-warblers really don’t warble, but have a wide assortment of rather mundane songs.  In contrast, chats issue a strange series of grunts, whistles, gurgles, and other strange sounds far removed from any sort of warbler song. The most subdued description I could find described the chat’s vocalizations as “eclectic.”

Most pointedly for our purposes here, they do not act like other warblers.  It is hard to avoid being anthropomorphic when discussing chats, and I’ll yield to it here, beginning with Bent’s succinct introduction to chat demeanor:

Next to its astonishing vocal performances, the eccentric, ludicrous, almost clownish, behavior is one of the chat’s most outstanding characteristics.

3chatsa_1 Chats are very vocal (hence the name, I suppose) but sing from territories staked out in the densest shrubbery. Males do have a display flight, where they launch themselves from a high perch and sing while descending in a jerky manner, tail spread, wings drooping.  This is portrayed in Audubon’s painting of the species.

Curiously, the original Audubon watercolor depicted this display utilizing three chats. Few people realize that there was criticism that this was too whimsical and unbelievable, so Audubon had the topmost chat removed from the engravings from which reproductions have Chat1a_2been made. I think this is a real shame, having seen the watercolor when it came to the Detroit Institute of Arts.  I like the original so much that I framed the plate from the folio that accompanied the exhibit.  You can judge for yourself which best evokes the essence of chat.

Personally, I’ve never seen a chat sing from a high perch.  Or any perch.  If you are looking at a chat, it’s looking at you, from somewhere in hiding.  Again, the Bent account has a not-too-hyperbolic synopsis:

If he discovers the approach of a human being, even at a considerable distance, he prepares to resent the intrusion; and giving three short, loud whistles, very low in tone, as a warning, he advances toward him, all the while careful that he should be heard and not seen. Should you move on, he follows, and if you approach, he retires, and, keeping at a respectful distance, he laughs defiance, shouts mockery and tantalizing sarcasm.

Mockery, said Tennyson, is the “fume of little hearts.” Except perhaps in the case of the Yellow-breasted Chat.  I like to think that a bird with this much personality and such a sense of humor must also have a big heart.

Rurality June 27, 2005 at 8:37 am

I wonder if Chats sing from high perches more often near water? I started thinking about the times I've seen them do that, and they've all been near water as I recall.

It has always struck me as strange that they're thrown in with the warblers! I hear them singing often here at our new place in the country.

Very interesting, about the engravings!

John June 27, 2005 at 1:05 pm

After finally seeing a chat yesterday, I have to agree that chats look misplaced as warblers. And it's not just the size – the bill and tail proportions don't look right either. The chat vocalized from a medium level, but exposed, perch, and it was not particularly close to water.

Clare June 28, 2005 at 12:22 am

Do I have to make an intelligent comment, or can I just wax not-so-poetically about how much I enjoy your writing, and wish I could sit down for tea some time?

Nuthatch June 29, 2005 at 9:15 am

Well, I like to think that a comment about enjoying my writing is pretty intelligent! 🙂

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