Department of Environmental Conservation

D E C banner

Yellow-breasted Chat

Photograph of Yellow-breasted Chat
©Philip Jeffrey Photography

Scientific name: Icteria virens

New York Status: Special Concern
Federal Status: Not Listed


It has been debated whether or not the yellow-breasted chat is even a warbler because of its uncharacteristic size, bill shape, and long tail. The largest of the wood warblers, it measures 7 inches in length with a heavy black bill that is slightly curved. The song is a low pitched collection of cackles, whistles, and gurgles that has been likened to a wren or a thrasher. Adults have olive upper parts, white under parts, and a bright yellow throat and breast. Sexes are similar with white eye spectacles and lores (area from base of bill to front of eyes) that are black in males and gray in females.

Life History

Males arrive on breeding territories before females. In New York this occurs during the first week of May. Females begin nest-building shortly after pairing with males. Pairs are monogamous and territorial but tend to nest in loose colonies. The nest is an open cup of woven grasses, leaves, and bark placed near ground level in dense shrubs or thicket.

map showing the breeding range of the yellow-breasted chat
Yellow-breasted chat range map from Birds of the World,
maintained by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

The female incubates a clutch of 3 to 6 eggs for 11 to 12 days. Although young hatch completely naked and altricial (helpless), they fledge after just 8 to 9 days. Diet consists mostly of insects but also includes fruits. Insects are gathered from the ground or in areas of dense shrubs. The yellow-breasted chat has a unique habit of holding its food with its foot.

Distribution and Habitat

The yellow-breasted chat has a wide breeding range across the Eastern United States and Southern Canada from Iowa to the lowland areas of New York, and south to Florida and Texas. It also occurs in scattered regions of the Midwest and west of the Rocky Mountains. Preferred habitat contains dense thickets and brush in the understory of deciduous and coniferous edges.


The yellow-breasted chat is generally a southern species that entered New York along the river systems of the Hudson Valley and Appalachian Plateau. It is an uncommon and local breeder that was detected in only 26 survey blocks during the 2000-2005 New York State Breeding Bird Atlas. Range-wide populations appear to be stable, but it has experienced fluctuations in peripheral and local populations. While populations in the eastern part of its range are declining, they are increasing in the west.

Management and Research Needs

Map of Yellow-breasted Chat in New York
Distribution of yellow-breasted chat in New York from
1st and 2nd NYS Breeding Bird Atlas records.

The yellow-breasted chat commonly exploits secondary growth and early successional habitats. The loss of such habitats has proven to be detrimental to peripheral populations. Management that limits succession would increase breeding habitat. Further research is needed on the relationship between breeding habitat availability and population density.

The effects of brood parasitism by brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) on the reproductive success of yellow-breasted chats also requires further study.